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All Is True (2018)
Quiet and fascinating rendition of the Bard's retiement.
12 June 2019
The general details of Shakespeare's retirement to Stratford, his hometown, are known, but the despair over the early death of his son, Hamnet, and his need to be a respected bourgeois may be slightly imaginative in All is True. No matter, what is certain is that he already was known as a poet and playwright of renown and had family challenges just like us.

Kenneth Branagh's lovely, peaceful rendition of this period, as well as his own underplayed Shakespeare, brings joy to those who have had to sit through Godzilla, Shaft, and Men in Black this summer to mention a few of the confections that pale beside Branagh's classy drama.

The depiction of a thriving little mercantile town 100 miles west of London is beautiful to behold, a living Constable, and the way the Bard navigates family and friends with the cool of a retired rock star is pleasant. After all, why not just play him low key as the greatest literary mind in all of civilization can't adequately be honored with bombast. Gently is the way Branagh gives the genius.

Although many anxiously awaited the scene with Branagh and Ian McKellen as the Earl of Southampton, it was too short but nonetheless satisfactory. Not only two gifted actors but also an interchange that suggests the bard dedicated lines to a beautiful youth, the Earl himself: "For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings / That then I scorn to change my state with kings." The Earl's tamping down the bard's ardor is fun and suggestive of a side of Shakespeare unknown to groundlings like me.

The drama Shakespeare experiences with his two daughters is also carefully handled with no screaming and much respect from a dad still reeling from his and everyone else's disappointment that he missed his son's burial years before. Wife Anne (Judi Dench) reminds him he was writing Merry Wives of Windsor then. Ouch.

For the millions who worship Shakespeare, All is True is no Shakespeare in Love-it is so much more.
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Late Night (2019)
Tough is not so bad in the hands of the gifted Emma Thompson.
10 June 2019
"Your earnestness can be very hard to be around." Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson)

Molly (Mindy Kaling), a new writer on the old Katherine Newbury late night talk show, is as earnest as Katherine is tough. Despite firing Molly more than once for that honesty, Katherine calls her back each time for Molly's connection to contemporary social media culture, her youthful optimism, and most importantly--being a woman

Late Night is a savvy and witty deconstruction of the ego-driven talk show hosting and the relentless adjustment older hosts must make to contemporary culture and openness. Katherine's rapid fire, spit fire putdowns are worthy of screwball comedy and hosting invective best exemplified by an original host, Jack Parr. But, of course, her supercilious, caustic attitude is eventually what puts her on the employment chopping block.

Besides the aging business is her staffing challenge: all male writers, who never meet with their boss. The sexism usually suspected in the entertainment business is only too apparent when the camera pans the table of male writers. (It works both ways as she is thought not to like women anyway.) Their acceptance of Molly is cold and ignorant because she is warm, honest, and funny.

Molly's down-to-earth spunk gets the beleaguered host's attention. Although no audience will be surprised by the turn of events, the acting is so top flight and writing spot on that waiting for the next bit of humor is the chief delight. While the plot is formulaic, the two actresses command attention.

Because I loved the Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, uncompromisingly tough while being uncommonly talented, Katherine appeals to me. Tough is not bad, and it can be tamed for the times.

The theme of the need to love your fellow humans is clear and applicable to the audience and the characters alike. To the characters the theme becomes the powerful advice to get a life, a behavior that just may provide the skills necessary to keep a job and enjoy a life.

Late Night shows it's not too late to change, and the denouement is as positive as you might expect a comedy to offer. Although J K Simmons' Fletcher in Whiplash defines the tough teacher, Emma Thompson's Katherine takes the role of leader a step farther toward charity and happiness.
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Rocketman (2019)
Enjoyable, brilliant biopic of one of Rock's icons.
6 June 2019
"And I think it's gonna be a long, long time. Till touch down brings me round again to find, I'm not the man they think I am at home. Oh no no no, I'm a rocketman!" Elton John (Taron Egerton)

Elton John's remarkable removal from reality while he really defines a new rock performance style in the late '60's expresses in "Rocketman" the tension between performance dynamism and the formulaic loneliness fame and success bring to a legend. Taron Egerton's Elton is every bit as good as, if not better than, Remi Malik's Freddie in Bohemian Rhapsody. Egerton sings with his own voice, not imitating Elton but recalling his genius while retaining Egerton's own distinctive sound-recollection not ompersonation.

Besides a career-defining role for Egerton, the biopic approaches the subject matter not so much historically as impressionistically, where each scene illuminates a character trait or moment that comments more on the human condition than the showbiz at hand. Elton's struggle with his sexual identity and a legion of typical 70's drugs like alcohol and cocaine highlight the difficulty any artist might have overcoming a culture of excess. So 70's, so rock 'n roll.

Director Dexter Fletcher brilliantly finished Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer's departure, and in so doing prepared to one-up himself with an Elton John more nuanced than Malik's Freddie. Fletcher and writer Lee Hall also make the standard Elton John repertoire express the moment rather than just provide a delightful chronological feast. The montage-like presentation, with the resonating emotion and psychological exposure, evokes the best of Baz Luhrmann, who never found a song that didn't fit a true emotion as in the memorable Moulin Rouge.

Rocketman is an impressionistic fantasy about the growth of Elton with an outstanding central performance, iconic songs, and a formulaic but not any less profound arc from glory to debasement and back again. Come to think of it, the ancient Greeks had that dramatic formula down so well that their drama is fresh even today.

Rocketman shows that Elton's signature flamboyance becomes a natural part of his genius: "Don't you want to just sing without this ridiculous paraphernalia?" Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). Thank goodness John knew it wasn't "ridiculous."
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Relax, it's summer, they always return. Have fun without using your mind.
30 May 2019
Warning: Spoilers
"Sometimes I think this is Godzilla's world. We just live in it." Chief Warrant Officer Barnes (O'Shea Jackson Jr)

It's summer blockbuster world, and Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a hot mess of good intentions bubbling over with smoke and fog that keeps geeks from fully appreciating the original Japanese destroyers. It's been 5 years since the old boy terrorized Tokyo and San Francisco.

The first act looks like writer/director Michael Dougherty and co-writer Zach Shields are aiming at an intelligent theme about cooperation but end in the third act losing all intelligence as in most superhero films with explosions and mano-a-mano monster mashing.

The scientists, mainly married but estranged Mark and Emma Russell (Kyle Chandler and Vera Farmiga), are the chief protagonist-connections with the monsters. She is onto something about tapping into the titans' (the identifier of the original monster/ rulers of the earth) audio frequency with an Orca machine to neutralize them and eventually fold them into a benign universe of cooperation with humans.

Along with the crypto-zoological, multinational organization, Monarch, the Russells work to save the titans from governments bent on destroying them. Not bad, but in these essentially cheesy films, Godzilla has to breathe fire, and Mothra and Rodan destroy anything, and ultimately the bad boy with three heads, King Ghidorah, has to bite his enemies to death.

In order to humanize the proceedings, Dougherty includes the usual tension between teen daughter, Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), and mother Emma, with Dad Mark in between. Because the monsters are threatening life as we know it, this familial squabbling is all the more ludicrous for its emphasis.

In our culture, we have always written about dragons and gorgons, so in a way we are right at home with these ridiculous monsters. That doesn't mean we have to accept the foolish plot points and silly dialogue:

"We opened Pandora's box. And there's no closing it now." Jonah Allen (Charles Dance)

The "box" is summer blockbusters, monsters who return relentlessly every summer. Don't think about it too hard. Just veg out with the geeks.
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Non-Fiction (2018)
So very French, so very entertaining, so very smart.
28 May 2019
"Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators." Stephen Fry

If you like things French such as conversation, books, love, infidelity, bourgeoise comforts, Eric Rohmer, and Juliette Binoche, then go right to Olivier Assayas' Non-Fiction. Here's a fiction film about incessant arguing over books vs. e-books, roman a clef, and the politics of publishing in a world where the Internet is shaping even the way talented authors structure their dramas.

Books and the Internet, along with the shape of e-books, informs almost every heated discussion of the fetching comedy with a bit of darkness to make it oh-so French interesting. Publisher Alain (Guillaume Canet) refuses to publish long-time writer and client Leonard's (Vincent Macaigne) newest novel possibly because Leonard has a habit of disguising well know people in his characters, this time may be Selena, wife of Alain, and lover of Leonard. After six years of this tomfoolery, do you think Alain might know?

While Assayas has a good old time with this old-time French drawing room stuff, all get togethers evolve into arguments about the viability of hard-bound books versus digital newcomers. No conclusion is made, except for the viewer who delights in the robust shenanigans that disguise the obsession writers and publishers now have over the mortality of books, hard or soft.

Regardless, the middle-aged literati are disguising their own fear of extinction in the face of Tweeted emotions in so many words and young folk who may not read anymore anyway. Even promotion of a book must attend to the right navigation on social media.

It's all heady words for this word lover who is delighted by such clever screwball setups and the idea, like any debate about the existence of God, that because we talk about books, they will endure. This comedy is not so much raucous as it is profound with a whole bunch of French sensibility and sex. I vote for that to endure right along with books.

"Lovers of print are simply confusing the plate for the food." Douglas Adams
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On of the best docs this year and a virtual poem about farming.
25 May 2019
"The simple hearth of the small farm is the true center of our universe." Masanobu Fukuoka

I know some people who claim to have grown up on a farm when in fact it was a piece of arid forest back east with one donkey and a few years under a mad matron. I recommend they, and anyone else inclined to romanticize farming, see The Biggest Little Farm, a documentary so honest about rural paradise as to inspire any audience to call realtor friends upon exit.

Documentarian John Chester and wife Molly, true romantics, buy 200 acres of dry land one hour north of LA (the above "farmers" could take the trip from LA to see this real farm). They document the next eight years with love and glorious photography. They revive the soil and nurture it with a virtual Noah's Ark of eating and defecating cuties, from a loveable sow to a living rooster and lambs and bulls and critters they didn't even have to import.

After a few years, drone shots reveal a swirling landscape of apricot trees and plants and grass to withstand the monstrous wind and rain sure to come. The likeness to crop circles is another layer of the farm's greet mysteries. Rains and wind do come, and the Chesters survive because they listened carefully to expert Allen, whose death leaves them to figure out their own survival. And they do.

Figuring out the place of coyotes in the deaths of their chickens is also one of the many challenges they have to assess and make decisions about life and death, tough calls for two sensitive souls dedicated to the harmony of nature.

They revive the soil, have a prosperous egg business, and learn to live in harmony with themselves and Nature's wondrous bounty. The Biggest Little farm is one of the best docs so far this year and a satisfying emotional and cinematic experience for the whole family and its pets.
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Booksmart (2019)
One of the best films of the year and teen comedies of all time.
24 May 2019
"They did two things. We're the a--holes who only did one." Molly (Beanie Feldstein)

Two high school besties, Molly and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), in Booksmart have overachieved academically, shorting themselves in the more raucous activities they now, at graduation time, resent they didn't do. As in the most successful coming-of-age comedies, starting with the male-centered Superbad, while throwing in Bridesmaids for a little adult naughtiness, the answer is a wild party the night before the graduation ceremony.

Although the drunken activities are not that creative, the patter is smart screwball, too fast and witty to be digested in one sitting. By far superior to Super Bad because the boys there are not the sharpest, these girls are inventive academics needing only a hallucinogen and an affair to complete their education.

As a side note, Molly learns that although she consumed her time in studying and got into Yale, a few slacking others made it into Stanford, Harvard, and Georgetown (mentioned twice, and my alma mater). Molly seems to realize there is more than just academics to young life, and excellence can come in the most unlikely places.

Rather than being dismissive about extracurricular dissipation, Booksmart accepts all kinds of people and ways of life. This democratic inclusion is a bold difference from the teen comedies that have favored white exclusion, outsized bullies, and boring bright nerds.

Olivia Wilde in her first effort directs with the ease of a veteran, changing the pace as necessary, a film fluidly and subtly framed by the appropriate music and smart dialogue. Although she follows some of the formula that takes our heroines up and down the experiential arc, she cannily keeps the two girls' friendship genuine and lasting. That's real female empowerment.

And that's the meta theme here: True friendship is the high-school lesson learned to be kept a lifetime. Booksmart is a smart, super good comedy that will have you laughing all the time and shaking your head in approval. It is one of the best movies of 2019 and one of the genre's best examples.

Books are smart, but friendship is better.
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Trial by Fire (I) (2018)
A true crime story where the truest crime is his conviction.
20 May 2019
Director Edward Zwick and writer Geoffrey Fletcher movingly craft a biopic about convicted killer Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O'Connell) in the late nineties executed for killing his three children in a fire. While there are multiple instances of the filmmakers morphing incidents to make strong their case against capital punishment in Texas, the impressive facts in the case swayed the jury and the parole board and the public.

Yet Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern), a Houston playwright, befriends him and finds strong evidence that he may have had a weak defense, local justice withheld proof of innocence, and forensic evidence showing no arson, was all garnered too late. Although more than half of the film is spent on unnecessary setup, when the biopic gets to Liz unearthing new evidence, it becomes on fire, so to speak.

That last half has moments of tension while at the same time following the Hollywood formula of manipulating music, questionable coincidences, and charming convict. Although clearly the filmmakers make the case that his case was bungled, they also make sure to depict Todd as a redneck loudmouth unlikeable by any stretch, until, that is, he has time to educate himself and be contrite.

Dern and O'Connell are convincing in their roles as unlikely friends, with a hint of romance, the film's singular weakness being not connecting them earlier and getting to the evidence gathering sooner.
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WIldly different take on one of history's best poets.
18 May 2019
"Because I could not stop for death, He kindly stopped for me." Emily Dickinson

Most cultural historians had pegged Emily Dickinson (Molly Shannon) as about dead long before her time when they depicted her to be shy, reclusive, and virginal. Recent scholarship, upon viewing letters from her to sister-in-law Susan (Susan Zieglar) shows a secret passionate love between the two. Hurray for those of us who suspected that poetic soul had more than death on her mind.

Director/writer Madeleine Olnik bouncily constructs the story with different episodes, some flash backs, to give it the feel, as one critic puts it, of a "Victorian vaudeville." Yes, it has some stock characters, almost winking eyes breaking the wall, and laughable social conventions. More than that, however, it has the roguish tone of a character who is brainy but not above unconventional high-jinx in the love category.

Happily, some of Emily's prose and poetry is run across the screen at appropriate times in the jagged sequence of mildly torrid scenes. In a sense, these are as minimalist like Emily's poetry, suggesting much more than the shots reveal. So be it. A poet suggests and does not report.

Although Wild Nights with Emily is titillatingly titled, the film itself is a rather mild exposition of a similarly mild poet, on the outside, mind you. For us English majors, it's nectar; for the rest, it's entertaining vaudeville.

"Dying is a wild night and a new road." Dickinson
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Long Shot (2019)
A sharp satire of contemporary politics leavened by an unlikely romance.
7 May 2019
"I'm a racist. You're a Republican. I don't know what is wrong with me." Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen)

That's the crazy humor of this important 2019 romcom: Not all of it makes sense, but, heck, the importance of Rogen's patented, schlubby stoner is to point out the contradictions of contemporary middle-class life with a light touch. In Long Shot, politics is the whipping post in all its narrow, crazy idealism.

Long Shot is an important film, not just because Rogen and Charlize Theron as secretary of state Charlotte Field are an unlikely romantic couple, but because Trump, Clinton, and Trudeau appear in the sharp allegory about vain and tough politics that force the best to act their worst. Most of the time, the laughs are on them, as, for instance, the president (Bob Odenkirk) cares more about his past TV triumphs and his future in film than he does about honesty in governing.

Nor does Theron's thinly disguised Hillary Clinton as Madam Secretary come off sometimes any better while she waffles on her core beliefs in order to secure the presidential nomination. Hooking up with former young love Fred does redeem her because his honest liberalism about saving trees, for instance, syncs with her good intentions, albeit her retreat from her idealism causes serious trouble for their budding romance.

The humor is largely in the satire of pretentious and corrupt politicians, most of whom sell their souls daily for expediency. Yet the romance of Charlotte and Fred is so light and sometimes realistically fragile that it lends a sweetness to the caustic circumstances that try to alter their better angels.

Critics of this romantic comedy could rightfully complain the couple is grossly mismatched, he a staunchly progressive writer with ordinary looks, she of shrewd convictions with a Hollywood appearance. However, that mismatch makes their connection all the sweeter because of the opposites-attract motif and because any amelioration of her aggressive persona is that much more attractive to a jaded audience.

As for the feminist aspirations of this comedy, they are obvious in her growingly liberal profile and her difficulties as a female aspirant to the presidency. It's easy enough to picture Charlize as a president and easy enough to see the hurdles that are higher than a man's.

Because romance is really what this film game is about, when the couple view the Northern Lights in Sweden, he is believably sentimental and she is falling in love:

Charlotte Field: Are you crying? Fred Flarsky: (sheepishly) ... It's pretty.

I recommend Long Shot as a light-hearted take on flawed current global politics and the enduring allure of romantic comedy, no matter how fraught it is.
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Tolkien (2019)
Enjoy a romantic bio of Tolkien's early years, and get a hint of his inspirations.
6 May 2019
"A safe fairyland is untrue to all worlds." J.R.R. Tolkien

Although the name Tolkien conjures up thoughts of fantastical tales about hobbits, rings, and magic of the highest order, there's little magic and much reality in the new biography, Tolkien. Yet there is much romance, in fact a genial part of an otherwise difficult life.

In reality this story of J.R.R. Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult), up until he becomes well-known for his fantasies while he is bringing up four children and loving his "elfin" princess, Edith (Lily Collins), has a magic of its own. At the same time, it acknowledges the serious shortcomings of an impecunious genius struggling to be heard in the din of class restrictions and WWI.

Besides the delightful early courtship of Tolkien and Edith, the best romance in a long time as far as I am concerned, is the romance of his boy's club. It started before the four culturally gifted young men enter Oxford and Cambridge and goes through the war, which decimated their little intellectual "fellowship." The support they gave each other, the companionable joy, has rarely been so lovingly captured on film. Lamentably, the boys never develop fully as characters, perhaps because of time restrictions.

Satisfying is his discovery by rhetoric professor Wright (Derek Jacobi), who eventually acknowledges Tolkien's genius with language. For those skeptical about the importance of education, watch Tolkien come alive in Wright's hands.

Although these early years seem accurately reported, the joy of this film is in seeing the slow but inexorable growth from a small boy raptly listening to his mother's fantastical readings to a young man doodling heroic figures on horses and scratching out inchoate stories that will give birth to some of the most influential literature in the Western world.

"If you really want to know what Middle-earth is based on, it's my wonder and delight in the earth as it is, particularly the natural earth." Tolkien
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One of the best superhero blockbusters ever.
27 April 2019
"It's not about how much we lost. It's about how much we have left. We're the Avengers. We gotta finish this." Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.)

Don't believe for a minute that Marvel's Comic Universe is finished after Avengers: Endgame. It may be curtains for archenemy Thanos (Josh Brolin), but a multibillion-dollar MCU franchise has much yet to accomplish. In Endgame, playing with time like a time machine allows the heroes a chance to reverse the "inevitable" work of their nemesis to save the world.

The more important time motif here is the three hours of viewing, from which no time machine can spare us. Yet, the genius of the directors Russo and their writers is to make the time go in warp speed, filling the screen with engaging characters and their actors, witty lines not forcing sarcasm but dishing soft irony. The visuals are equally almost underplayed so that it's an organic whole with no element, even music, dominating.

What does dominate is the abiding humanity where love and hate, empire and home, and collaboration not individualism are evidenced in fleshed-out characters and universal themes carefully but never overpoweringly used. The motif of people working as a team for the communal good underlies heroic actions while searching for home and family is the motivating sympathy binding almost all the major characters.

The honor roll includes Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man (Downey Jr.), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Okoye (Danai Gurira), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), and Captain America (Chris Evans). And too many more to list, the point being these actors have become the heroes; kudos to successful casting directors.

Although I must allow the usual tropes to bind us in sci-fi sympathy, I will always complain that the final act has too many explosions and fist fights (really, with the super tech available to these star travelers, why must the ultimate decider be old-fashioned brute force?). Despite that complaint, I find the movie thrillingly entertaining, a great example for the uninitiated into the genre. I must say there are fewer explosions in the first two acts than usual. Hooray.

For those of us who have seen much sci-fi, Avengers: Endgame has just about all the best qualities we have seen and loved. The humanism dominates:

"Even if there's a small chance that we can undo this, I mean, we owe it to everyone who is not in this room, to try." Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson)
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Stockholm (I) (2018)
Funny and serious--just the way I like my heist films. And it's true.
23 April 2019
"Their resistance to outside help and their loyalty toward their captors was puzzling, and psychologists began to study the phenomenon in this and other hostage situations." Rachel Lloyd

It doesn't pay to second guess Bianca Lind's (Noomi Rapace) falling for her abductor, Lars Nystrom (Ethan Hawke), in the real life 1973 heist/abduction that originated the descriptor, Stockholm Syndrome. Even as romantic as writer/director Robert Budreau makes the situation, no matter how crazy-charming he makes Lars, the situation, close to life or death, strains credulity.

Although the scene has been regularly described as "absurd" by officials and the media, Budreau and his first-rate actors create a reality that at the very least reminds me of Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon. Dog is another hostage situation at a bank with Sonny (Al Pacino) seeking funds for a sex change for his lover. Sounds absurd until you feel the human emotions involved; in Stockholm the sympathy flows between mother Bianca, with a weak husband, and the defiant but "soft" Lars.

Lars had been known to save a heart-attack victim at a heist and shows care for the hostages in the Stockholm bank. The two actors are so good, you can forgive his larceny and understand her attraction to him. It is by no means to exculpate Lars or to condemn the police for using gas-what else could they do?

No one would think that the cinematic setups of this heist are an accurate rendition of the Norrmalmstorg robbery, yet the heightened passions; Lars' motive to spring his bank robbery buddy, Gunnar (Mark Strong); and the imperfect strategies of Chief Mattsson (Christopher Heyerdahl) ring true in any situation. Stockholm is a stock situation riddled with humanity, and some light humor (see the bumbling husband), to make an eccentric spin on an old formula.

Enjoy the characters, and let your reality demands take a sideline.
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High Life (2018)
Serious and bleak space travel with Denis' characteristic intelligence and irony.
17 April 2019
"Our flight must not be only to the stars but into the nature of our own beings . . . Our natures will be going there, too." Philip K. Dick

And you thought 2001: A Space Odyssey was slow. Claire Denis' High Life, depicting death-row inmates on a miserable eight-year black-hole mission to harvest its rotational energy for a hungry earth, is a painfully slow dance with eroticism at its most basic.

Given that true survival can be only through births, the process to engender is haphazard artificial insemination, troubling because of radiation and manipulated by chief doctor and child murderer Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche). Denis carries over from her Trouble Every Day and Bastards a darkness and psychosexuality that make here for a disturbing and intriguing study of loneliness and hopelessness.

Monte (Rob Pattinson) seems to be about the sanest among the crew, and initially unbeknownst to him, he's the father of a daughter, who grows up during the journey. Where she may find a mate in the loneliness of space, writer/director Denis lets us speculate.

Although High Life could be considered low life with a cast of disreputable characters, Denis has far heavier matters to consider, in part about how life and its survival may depend on a balanced menu of sex and daily duties, in other words the elementary building blocks of civilization carefully attended to.

Visually this heady sci-fi is not in the same constellation as the beautiful Space Odyssey or the minimalist Gravity. Its beauty is not born of CGI but rather the Darwinian struggle to survive and more than that, to be human and civilized.
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Peterloo (2018)
A splendid rendition with Mike Leigh's perfect pitch about the commoners.
15 April 2019
"Rise like Lions after slumber in unvanquishable number- Shake your chains to earth like dew Which in sleep had fallen on you- Ye are many-they are few." Shelley, from The Masque of Anarchy

No contemporary director depicts and loves the working class better than Mike Leigh: look at Secrets and Lies for the best example. Believing that not enough people know about the massacre in 1819 in Manchester, where the British army slaughtered 18 and wounded scores of commoners peacefully assembling for liberty and rights, Leigh filmed Peterloo, the popular name for the uprising.

With an ear for local locutions and pompous preening, Leigh alternates between the people and their monarchial rulers, showing the sincerity of the marchers and the fear of the magistrates, who wish for nothing more than a Waterloo to stem the French-revolution-like yearnings of the folk. When administrators order the soldiers to squash the gathering, it's the beginning of responsible press reporting the malignity of entrenched rulers.

Leigh's longtime cinematographer, Dick Pope, has exceptional shots of the laborers and their homes to rival the best work of Millet and Courbet. The framing arches and rolling fields provide Pope with contours and colors to complement the dignity and vitality of the people.

However, it's Leigh's unfailing ear for diction and eye for metaphor that distinguish him as a David Lean of the working class. Contrasting the magistrates clustered around drafting the warrants for the crowd and the almost lyrical happiness of the assembly not only sets up the worlds of sad and happy, but they also heighten the terror as the innocent are vanquished by the proud.

Out of this debacle came a strong press that began and never stopped evaluating the ruling class. All hail the emergence of the Manchester Guardian.

"Let a great Assembly be Of the fearless and the free On some spot of English ground Where the plains stretch wide around." Shelley
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The Public (2018)
Entertaining protest story the challenges free speech and authority.
11 April 2019
"The public library is the last bastion of democracy that we have in this country!" Anderson (Jeffrey Wright)

A challenge to democracy, a defense of the first amendment, and a complex standoff between police and protesters is what writer/ director Emilio Estevez expertly does in the docudrama, the Public. With echoes of Dog Day Afternoon and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Estevez gives an authentic feel to this urban drama in one of the country's most conservative communities,

Like Dog Day's Sonny, protagonist Stuart Goodson (Estevez) is an innocent caught in his idealism and foolishness. Stuart manages a library and becomes involved in a homeless demonstration on perhaps the coldest Cincinnati night. The sufferers want refuge in the library, and the city erroneously considers their sit-in to be a hostage situation.

With the always interesting Alec Baldwin as Detective Ramstead negotiating, the scene gets tense, but Stuart is cool enough to keep talks going without giving in. Other characters are equally underwritten such as Jena Malone's librarian and Christian Slater's prosecutor/mayoral candidate. Especially the homeless characters, most are underdeveloped or emblematic of a single trait.

Stuart, however, is fully written but too goody for my taste. Although the writer/director clearly supports the protesters' point of view, the screenplay also allows moments when the authorities can be praised for keeping the peace but criticized for neglecting the plight of the homeless. With this complex characterization and motives, Estevez find a satisfactory drama amid some obvious stereotypes and clichés.

It's a good story played out everyday in different forms. The plight of the homeless and disadvantaged is eternal.
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Pet Sematary (2019)
A solid horror thriller with some important things to say.
8 April 2019
"Sometimes, dead is better." Jud (John Lithgow)

I've seen a few horror films in my time, and too few rise to the level of, say, The Exorcist or The Shining.

But now and then a good one comes by, scary with a social conscience such as last year's It by Stephen King. His current Pet Sematary doesn't necessarily eclipse its own previous iterations; rather it provides with some plot changes, a venue for a classic notion, life after death, and it does it well enough.

Louis (Jason Clarke), an ER doc, moves his wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz); daughter, Ellie (Jete Laurence); and son, Gage (Lucas Lavoie and Hugo Lavoie) from frenetic Boston to rural Maine to escape the madness. However, this is Stephen King territory: Right away they have to deal with the change in their beloved cat and with the weird pet cemetery on their property. Oh, yes, and an adjacent burial ground that provides the film's largest horrors.

Although I appreciate the usual tropes like jump scares and gross bodies, I'm mostly moved, or scared as the case might be, by the treatment of belief in the afterlife. Our doctor doesn't believe until faced with cat, Cage, coming home from his grave, and, well, other strange occurrences. Let the scares begin.

Mostly I am moved by the man of science's dismissal about the afterlife to his full belief in the concept. He becomes a believer, fulfilling my fervid hope for a commitment on the religious themes and the obvious terror of meeting ones you loved, gone but not for good.

Secondarily, Pet Sematary is also about striking out for a new life and leaving goodness behind while evil visits in every turn. It's a cautionary tale about knowing what you are getting into when you alter your life.

"She won't come back the same." Jud
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Hotel Mumbai (2018)
Real and terrible: A modern parable of international mayhem.
4 April 2019
"The guest is God," motto of the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai.

Based on a series of terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008, Hotel Mumbai captures the siege of a city besieged by gunmen doing an efficient job of killing at least 100 people and shutting down a modern metropolis. The focus is on the fabulous Taj Mahal Hotel, a fitting symbol of modern depravity for these four Pakistani Muslims bent on doing Allah's vengeance.

Director Anthony Maras, along with other writer John Collee, give s personality to a few of the staff and guests: head chef Hemant Oberoi (Annpam Kher) is courage personified as he guides guests out of the mayhem; head waiter Arjun (Dev Patel) has the smarts and valor to do the same; rich American guest David (Armie Hammer) is fearless defending his family. Throughout, class distinctions between guests and staff are preserved, lending another level of accuracy.

Beyond these notable participants are the other usual stereotypes such as the shady but redeemable Russian, the conscience-stricken terrorist, and the scared sister protecting David's baby. However, the use of real news footage on TVs keeps us grounded in the reality.

While these formulaic victims are unavoidable in any disaster film, the filmmakers create tension by cutting between the terrorists randomly and coldly dispatching anyone in sight and the besieged hotel denizens. When David's baby cries in a closet, we fear the terrorists will hear. That's real tension, real terror.

It's hard not to place ourselves in that situation and not empathize with the helpless victims and wonder what courage we would show. Although the women too often cry and many men are cowardly, no way can you leave the theater and not be a little more aware of the vicissitudes of travel abroad and the marvel at your courageous fellow human beings.

Here's a successful, scary thriller and cautionary tale: Danger is out there, no matter where you go.
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The Aftermath (II) (2019)
An early-spring treat that entertains without being a classic.
2 April 2019
"We dropped more bombs in Hamburg on one weekend than fell on London in the whole of the war." Col. Morgan (Jason Clarke)

WW II was unkind to all. Five months into the 1945 allied occupation of Germany, The Aftermath, based on the book by Rhidian Brook and set in Hamburg, chronicles another war that never ends: the love triangle. Facing off are Rachael Morgan (Keira Knightley) in the middle; her husband, Colonel Morgan, on one side; and the hunky German resident of their home, Stephen Lubert (Alexander Skarsgard), on the other.

Daily and weekly preoccupation with German rebel groups and the challenges of de-Nazification rebuilding, Lewis lets his lonely, grieving wife (she lost a son in the blitz) fall into Lubert's sculpted arms. So gently does director James Kent let her fall, that her infidelity seems almost acceptable, given the tattered life of post-war Germany.

Too much of this dark romance centers on the lovers kissing and hugging rather than helping the wounded and the stunned reacclimate themselves. The tension builds from the Nazis' nightmare-like presence and questions about Lubert's sympathies during the war. Although the colonel must face his wife's infidelity, his character reminds us of the divided responsibilities and further complications when one must deal with infidelity as well as war's aftermath.

Tragi-romantic and historic- The Aftermath comes at a good time of year for a quiet reflection on loyalty, love, and duty. Besides the visually stunning estate, picturesque snow, and immaculate automobiles, the leads are handsome and smart, making up for the lack of originality in the triangle (Knightley's gold evening dress alone is stunning).

Formulaic though it is, it still engages because the longing to be desired and belong is timeless and universal.
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Dumbo (2019)
Tim Burton applies his magic to this re-imagined classic, but not enough.
1 April 2019
"You've made me a child again." V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton)

Dumbo almost soars! And Tim Burton comes down to earth with a remake of a Disney classic that could have been a classic on its own. Gone are Burton's excess along with Johnny Depp; welcome an endearing tale of a flying elephant. The formulaic Disney plot arc is here from joy to despair to joy at last, from motherless kids and ruthless showmen to home again and a prosperous circus.

Dumbo will indeed make you a child again with its shabby but soulful circus that gives birth to the wondrous Dumbo. Max Medici (Danny DeVito) is the ringmaster who must keep the show afloat with a mix of ruthlessness and vulnerability. Not as nice is his new domineering merger partner, Vandevere, who exudes self-centeredness that knows not charity.

The comparison to the recent merger of Disney and Fox is spot on, and the Dreamland sequences cry out Disneyland. Some praise must go to corporate merger-master Disney for letting the satire into its own revisionist film. Needless to say, the formula for Disney fantasy is in tact here, giving another layer of irony for a film that a celebrates differences but preserves formula.

Those bad boys Vandevere and Medici are matched by the bevy of goodies, not least of which is returning veteran dad and widower, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), whose lost arm is compensated for by his heart; and Collette Marchant (Eva Green), whose benevolence is instrumental in liberating the little elephant form cruel masters and Holt's children from loneliness for their deceased mother.

In tune with the Disney demand for righteousness, the salvation of these suffering workers is not really the circus phenom but their own ability to overcome evil. That independence and courage are boilerplate Disney as well as the necessity of family unity and love.

"Hi, baby Dumbo, welcome to the circus. We're all family here, no matter how small." Milly Farrier (Nico Parker)
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Tarantino would enjoy this eccentric and memorable heist film.
26 March 2019
"It's bad for you, it's bad for me, it's bad like lasagna in a can." Anthony (Vince Vaughn)

Writer/director S. Craig Zahler blew me away with Bone Tomahawk, as eccentric a western as ever made. In Dragged Across Concrete his two white, male suspended-cops' (Anthony and Brett, played convincingly by Mel Gibson) heist takes a more traditional path but has dialogue continually as crisp as my headliner, though decidedly less explosive and ironic than Tarantino's Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs.

Although you may think you have seen this gritty and yet mellow thriller before, Zahler has expertly and innovatively conducted us through an eccentric but dangerous underworld of robbery and treachery. I suspect in real life the double-dealing happens more than we would guess.

Two-handed dialogue, ala Tarantino, about fast food and family, for both the two protagonists and the bad guys, alternates between the mundane and the philosophical, anchovies, and murder. Although conversation is not as caustic as that of Tarantino's loveable crooks, the wordplay rings truer about daily living, even for those involved in robbery and murder.

The wonder of this heist is that we get to know even the bad guys, Russian and Latino, as the director keeps the camera steady on two crooks driving the getaway van and talking about family and the growing danger of the robbery. Or getting to know a victim through an extended visit to her paranoia about leaving her apartment and child for numbing work at the targeted bank. Fate will decide her future, and we are the more empathetic for having spent time with her.

Dragged Across Concrete fulfills the promise of its hard-edged title: its heist is memorable, multifaceted, and microscopically treated as if we were in the planning and execution. Along the way there's humor to lighten the death-threatening caper.

Brett catches the ambivalent crime-stopping the two are indicted for: "And it turns out that sh-t's more important than good, honest work." This is a good, honest heist film about characters not so good or honest but interesting nonetheless.
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Gloria Bell (2018)
The best character study currently in films.
23 March 2019
In Gloria Bell, when Bonnie Tyler's Total Eclipse of the Heart" can be a romantic coda, and Paul McCartney's No More Lonely Nights can be hopeful, while Gilbert O'Sullivan's Alone Again (Naturally) is the more accurate read, you can be assured we're in the Twilight Zone of a lonely 50 something divorcee looking for happiness or at least balance, not just of yoga. However, Gloria is played by the gorgeous Joanna Moore, so you know she has a few more chapters in her love book.

Writer-director Sebastian Lelio has re-worked his Chilean hit, Gloria, from six years ago, and it hasn't aged a bit. The music alone, a mix of disco, Latin, and pop, keeps the pace as frenetic and romantic as Gloria's searching heart. When she meets the unreliable Arnold (John Turturro) and falls for him, she eventually determines he is as toxic as his paint gun concession isn't. Her end to that romance is a classic.

The reason to see this dramedy about a middle-aged hunter is to bathe in the glamor and vulnerability of this highly-developed woman. Her tireless search for love in discos and bars is a metaphor for our own hunt until we work hard enough to merit the prize.

Through the disappointments that family brings to lonely hearts like Gloria's emerges a heart strong enough to keep up the good fight. It's all not glorious, but it is alive with moments of truth and love that give sustenance to the warrior.

Gloria Bell is an absorbing character study, for which Moore should be nominated, taking us through the joy of letting go through dance to immersing in affections ill-timed and disappointing. Yet, like the title, life has glorious moments, and this film captures those highs and lows with a performance the best of Moore's career. And Lilo's.
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Us (2019)
Who would have thought such a rousingly good film at this time of year>
22 March 2019
"They look exactly like us. They think like us. They know where we are. We need to move and keep moving. They won't stop until they kill us... or we kill them." Adelaide (Madison Curry)

You thought Jordan Peele's Get Out was a smart person's horror film; well his Us is even better because the intelligent themes are there, but the horror elements are amped up, quite reasonably I'd have to say. A sweet family is terrorized by its doppelgangers, who seem to represent the dark side of themselves and humanity.

The thrills are more than the usual horror tropes like jump scares and scary rooms. Each character must face his twin and fight it as if his life depended on it, and it does. When the opening scene has young Adelaide strolling away from her parents at the Santa Cruz beach into a fun-house hall of mirrors, you know she will face her twin, Young Red, and be forever changed for that brief 15 minutes.

Writer Peele lets the growing family prosper slowly until the twin family arrives, when baseball bats and fireplace pokers can do only so much to dispel those creatures. One of the nice touches is that the good guys can be effective against the home invaders but only with cunning and a ton of courage. As with most of this genre, no creature dies easily or quickly.

If like me, you take your horror lite, in Us is plenty of small asides that give a chuckle and also add to the suspense. When dad (Winston Duke, physically resembling Tyler Perry and Jordan Peele and therefore likeable if not at times schlubby), comments that mom has just left the car, the dark humor is that she's left to find one of the twins and armed only with the now iconic scissors. We want to tell her not to go there alone because we know the tradition of a loner going into a forest.

As for star of Us, mom Adelaide/Red (Lupita Nyong'o) kicks butt most of the time because dad is debilitated, and women in general are more apt to take over these days. See this excellent film at a time of year when we could have expected less.
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Cartels, lovely and deadly.
21 March 2019
Birds of Paradise takes a familiar subject, the Colombian drug scene in the '60's and '70's, and makes it into a watchable Godfather saga. Family is the center of the action leading to, you guessed it, warring drug kingdoms. The cinematography is lush, the actors authentic, and the themes eternal.

The stuff that makes the world happy, weed, comes down from the mountains to the small airplanes, which fly north to the US, a pleased customer bringing prosperity to otherwise impoverished Colombians. Marriage promises families forever linked until capitalism, not communism, rends even the strongest familial ties.

The five "cantos" embrace happiness and misery in equal measure: wild grass, the graves, prosperity, the war, and limbo. The coming out party of gorgeous Zaida (Natalia Reyes) presages a bright future for her Wayuu tribe with a blazing-red silk dress and stunning face paint. However, the imposing mother Ursula (Carmina Martinez) demands an expensive dowry that suitor Rapayet (Jose Acosta) might have difficulty offering. This matriarch gives the lie to any theory that Latino culture is purely patriarchal.

Ambition leads to drug running, family feuding, and temporary wealth. The riches are embodied in the colorful fabrics that are flamboyant and garish at the same time. The dark downfalls could be written about anywhere.

Birds of Passage is an engaging and beautiful gloss on the effects of tribalism and the corruptions of wealth and power, exacerbated by the obsession with the belief in family to die for at all costs. It is a glowing and menacing reprise of the Colombian Corleone days set amongst the indigenous Wayuu, for whom only a few moments are in paradise.
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Captive State (2019)
Diverting sci-fi in a weak-movie time of year.
19 March 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Captive State is a sci-fi, dystopian attempt that isn't in the same quality star system as Blade Runner and its ilk. It's a narrative about the near future (maybe about eight years from now but no tech allowed, so Polaroids are the best they can do) with an alien invasion and fragmented freedom fighters joining in a flawed rebellion, so murky as to be downright puzzling. Clear it is not.

Captive State does have an always reliable John Goodman as Commander William Mulligan, a fitting name for a local watchdog who struggles with both sides of the fight. His role as a law enforcer in a rebel-infested section and with a spineless citizenry is about the only developed character in this wasteland.

If you're looking to get a sense of who the aliens are, don't. They appear briefly, resembling at first a hairy Elmo, then later a desert plant with spikes.

The Chicago-occupying alien "legislators" have demanded and received full compliance around the world to the tune of disbanded armies and full fealty from earth quislings who control the passive earthlings. This tyranny is best expressed at a big rally where an Amazon-like beauty sings the alien-friendly version of The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Yet this lack of aliens, who are not on the surface but mostly under the earth, allows writer/director Rupert Wyatt a concentration on the fighters, which he and co-writer Erica Beeney valiantly try but with limited success because there are too many characters too slimly developed. The ever-enchanting Vera Farmiga as a madam working the underground with her business is in only a few scenes that don't do justice to her relationship with the rebels and bureaucrats, especially Mulligan.

I don't doubt the filmmakers wished its sci-fi to be an allegory about our own authoritarian-leaning, colonizing world; they just don't let that intriguing rendition get traction amid the confusion of images and operatives. Although like me, you'll eventually get the gist.

The cheap CGI, dark settings, absent occupiers, and Focus Features' canceling the critics' screening might give you a hint that this is neither a coherent thriller nor a classic.

Yet, it's that weak-movie time of year when even this sci-fi is welcome, imperfect as it is.
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