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The Oath (2018)
Topical amd bloody dark humor. After all, it's Thanksgiving dinner.
21 October 2018
Some films are not easily classified: Ike Barinholtz's The Oath is just such a puzzle. The prospect of seeing a comedic take on Thanksgiving with current liberal and conservative divisions in many families was tantalizing.

However, The Oath turns into a black comedy at best and bloody Straw Dogs home invasion at worst. Chris (Ike Barinholtz), a liberal, tries to understand why anyone would sign a government loyalty oath (Think Trump's National Loyalty Day, May 1) today in democratic USA. His brother, Pat (Jon Barinholtz) and most of his family, has signed, leading to Chris trying to avoid confrontations with little luck.

With two Citizens Protection Unit operatives arriving unannounced, the contentious Thanksgiving dinner turns into a bloody confrontation between these enforcers of the oath and the growingly isolated, liberal Chris.

For sure there are laughs at the extreme ends of the political spectrum, both sides evidencing ignorance and moved more by the movements themselves rather than deep-seated beliefs. Yet both sides are capable of cruelty and violence, and even Chris and his loving wife, Kai (Tiffany Haddish) are capable of turning on each other.

The animosities are made real by today's polarized politics, so that the absurdist humor can resonate in all its hyperbole. Although the ending should satisfy both sides, and for sure the liberals, nonetheless all sides should be able to fear the extremes to which the citizenry can go and embrace a humanism that doesn't force anyone to turn on family.

After all, it is Thanksgiving, and I feel confident your family will be kind and loving. It's the others you have to worry about.

This dark drama has touches of humor, but also, it's Straw Dogs for political extremists. The Oath is a surprisingly acidic commentary on our partisan culture today.
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A powerful conflict powerfully told.
20 October 2018
"Slang makes them look cool, but it makes me look hood." Starr

White cop shoots black man-it's been in the news in various forms for years because it easily, too easily, defines the racial divide now and maybe forever. George Tillman Jr. directs The Hate U Give gingerly and yet powerfully presenting the black citizen outrage side while giving a different perspective from the white cop side. In either case, the narrative is interesting and poignant, a great film on a difficult topic.

Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) is a 16-year-old black girl coming from a somewhat comfortable other side of the tracks while attending a private, white high school. At the local school "you go to get drunk, high, pregnant or killed." (Starr)

She is hiding her address behind a beautiful soft black face, but not for long because she witnesses a white cop shoot her black friend, Khalil (Algee Smith), while he was reaching for a hairbrush that the officer thought was a gun.

Her struggle is whether to make her presence at the crime known to the community at large as she prepares for a grand jury inquiry. Beyond the complexity of her deciding to go public, and suffer the shunning of her white, privileged friends, is the real impediment of family and friends who have lived for years not standing up to police racism and indulging a fear of the police.

Although The Hate U Give may feel like the recent Monsters and Men, it is a more dramatic rendering of character, even for minor characters, and it clearly develops the plot with the arc of Starr's defiance and defense. And speaking of defense, her Uncle Carlos (Common), lectures the family on the complexity of an officer's decision when he decides to shoot a young man.

The analysis doesn't feel like an admission of guilt as much as it does balance out either side of the argument. The film becomes believable with this speech.

The Hate U Give, although melodrama at times, has a Spike Lee feel to it of streets, gangs, and hope. The hope is real. The film is memorable.
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After Everything (I) (2018)
ROmantic drama as it should be.
18 October 2018
Having been subjected to Nicholas Sparks's romantic sludge for years, I am pleased with a romantic drama that feels real and painful without hearts, flowers, or bottle messages. The brilliance of After Everything (fka Shotgun) is that writer/directors Hannah Marks and Joey Power keep sentimentality at bay while directing two fine actors, whose chemistry is astonishingly believable. It's the year's best romance.

Elliot (Jeremy Allen White), reminding me of Dustin Hoffman's Graduate look and persona, gets a life-defining diagnosis while meeting the girl of his dreams, Mia (Maika Monroe). Despite his bleak prognosis, they fall in love and marry. Of course, already the situation is unreal, but the characters are so sincerely in love that we become complicit in their seemingly skewered decision.

However, the film is dedicated to showing authentic love that sacrifices certainty for the abstract promise of everlasting love. And they love in a fetchingly warm connection that makes us forget he seems doomed to early death.

I'm not an overly-sentimental type, but After Everything is close to my perfect screen romance. It's real and touching without the dross that usually accompanies this type of drama. A date night-you bet!
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After Everything (I) (2018)
As a contemporary romantic drama should be.
18 October 2018
Having been subjected to Nicholas Sparks's romantic sludge for years, I am pleased with a romantic drama that feels real and painful without hearts, flowers, or bottle messages. The brilliance of After Everything (fka Shotgun) is that writer/directors Hannah Marks and Joey Power keep sentimentality at bay while directing two fine actors, whose chemistry is astonishingly believable. It's the year's best romance.

Elliot (Jeremy Allen White), reminding me of Dustin Hoffman's Graduate look and persona, gets a life-defining diagnosis while meeting the girl of his dreams, Mia (Maika Monroe). Despite his bleak prognosis, they fall in love and marry. Of course, already the situation is unreal, but the characters are so sincerely in love that we become complicit in their seemingly skewered decision.

However, the film is dedicated to showing authentic love that sacrifices certainty for the abstract promise of everlasting love. And they love in a fetchingly warm connection that makes us forget he seems doomed to early death.

I'm not an overly-sentimental type, but After Everything is close to my perfect screen romance. It's real and touching without the dross that usually accompanies this type of drama. A date night-you bet!
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Halloween (2018)
It's scary fun for any Halloween.
17 October 2018
"Evil is real." Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis)

Forget 1978's John Carpenter Classic Halloween and update 40 years later to a solid B horror movie that will scare the bejesus out of you and make you fondly reminisce about that original. Michael Myers (Nick Castle and James Courtney) is back to murder; Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) is back to murder him. It's a bloody good reunion.

To refresh your memory: "We're here to investigate a patient that killed three innocent teenagers on Halloween, 1978. He was shot by his own psychiatrist and taken into custody that night, and has spent the last forty years in captivity." Martin (Will Patton)

Before lamenting the lack of psychoanalysis for Mike's mayhem, then and now, it should be said that his indiscriminate murders seem to be related now to a revenge on Laurie, and then, well, you'll have to go back 40 years and explore for yourself. As his prison psychologist, Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilgner) opines, some who fear being prey become predators.

Then, not being sure, as with Hannibal Lecter, we might guess that these serial murderers do it because they enjoy it. No telling except for the occasional smile.

Have no fear, so to speak, the horror tropes have not been lost over the decades: vulnerable and nubile young high schoolers, making out, outrageous jump scares, ax murders, running to the woods at night, etc. The recurrence of these staples confirms the resilience and duration of evil, which, from Hitler to Charles Manson, never seems in short supply, especially in cheesy horror films.

A word about Jamie Lee Curtis's return. Her grandma is buff and commando ready for Mike's return, kick ass in modern parlance. In #MeToo terms, it's the revenge for male dominance writ large. Most of all, it's a confirmation that evil is real and needs to be beaten, even if it takes 4O years to prepare for it.

"Happy Halloween, Michael." Laurie
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Colette (2018)
Immerse yourself in Paris and Colette. You'll fall in love.
16 October 2018
"You've invented a type." Mathilde de Morny (Denise Gough) to Colette (Keira Knightly)

At the turn of the 20th century, no female French writer was better regarded than Colette, nee Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. Keira Knightly, in the film Colette, channels the icon and feminist in a cinematic docudrama anyone interested in culture and history will enjoy. Yes, young Parisian girls eventually looked like Colette's heroine, Claudine.

It took a while for Colette to become known as a singular writer because for the longest time the world thought the provocative Claudine novels were written by her husband, Willy (Dominic West). It was not necessarily a matter of slavery because the Victorian era was notoriously hostile to risqué female writers, this one not Jane Austen-like, to be sure.

Colette in this rendition is quite happy with the arrangement, for the country girl enjoys the Parisian culture while the couple grows rich on her novels. Nor is Willy portrayed as a tyrant, just a practical publisher/writer who knows a good thing when it is his wife. However, when early on she says, "I can read you like the top line at an optometrist's office," one can't help but think how witty she is and how much in trouble he will be.

As Colette begins to show interest in other women, the film progresses into the modern era, where she becomes liberated (as a philanderer, Willy cannot complain), enjoys acting, and eventually divorces Willy to write more under her real name.

Meanwhile the film's audience is delighted to see the era recreated in Paris and its countryside and the women splendid in their corseted finery. Co-writer/director Wash Westmoreland takes care to let us visually enjoy the decorations while he really is interested in showing how Colette beaks through her glass ceiling with Westmoreland's low-key storytelling that makes you think you are there.

Living with Willy and Colette in this film will send the audience to her works and her Paris, as much a beneficiary of her talent as her pop-cultural writing magnificence.
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Redford is the reason.
15 October 2018
Watching Robert Redford breeze through The Old Man and the Gun, I am reminded that a minimalist drama like this can serve one purpose only if it wants: See an 82-year-old movie star gracefully perform again, with dignity. However, this film offers more in its smallness: seasoned actors like Sissy Spacek, Danny Glover, and Tom Waits provide momentary joy beyond Redford's sustaining charisma.

Despite the clichéd bank robbery motif, based on the real-life career of serial robber Forrest Tucker, his eighty robberies and 16 prison escapes reveal not a mean man but rather a charmer who robs because it makes him smile and who helps others when he doesn't have to.

Old Man hints at deeper emotional possibilities when it's discovered that his daughter, played by Elizabeth Moss, is unknown to him:

Jewel (Sissy Spacek): "Do you have any children?" Forrest Tucker: "I hope not." The film likes to keep these moments underwritten to suggest the depth as a richness he hasn't ignored but prefers to keep at bay. That spareness of emotion, dialogue, and sustained discourse adds to the mystery of a man who floats above daily intercourse to pursue a passion, albeit robbery.

Redford shuffles a bit like an old man, but he teases us with the wisdom he holds behind that killer smile and a youthful insouciance that makes him ageless.

You will not be revisiting the wisecracking of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or the sophistication of The Sting; you will get a fun heist film featuring a star who evidences the reason he has 78 entries in his filmography and originated a seminal cultural institution, The Sundance Institute. A bit like the underplaying but still prolific and passionate Forrest Tucker.

It's infectious: "I've been thinking about a bank robbery my whole life." Ryan Gosling
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Good times watching Bad Times
12 October 2018
Writer/director Drew Goddard's Bad Times at the El Royale is a long and entertaining sendup of Quentin Tarantino's crime world (think Hateful 8 and Pulp Fiction), post-Tarantino caper movies, and a bit of Hitchcock for suspense. It's the late 60's when eccentric characters converge on the seedy El Royale motel to recover cash from a heist 10 years ago hidden under the floorboards of a room.

By far the most interesting visitor is Father Daniel Flynn, aka Dock O'Kelly (Jeff Bridges), who set the heist in motion back then, did time for it, and returns to the half-closed motel to recover the loot. As symbol of a corrupt society that still clings to some semblance of religiosity, Flynn navigates the other crooks with caution.

Until the incarnation of the devil, or at least Charles Manson, arrives, Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), muscled and amoral but not loath to preach about a simple life for his devotees and seek the money for himself. With the motel's roaring fireplaces enfolding these untrustworthy survivors, Goddard must surely be thinking of hell on earth as earthlings grapple for lucre.

Surprises abound (be careful with that shotgun!), and not all the players make it out alive. Heck, even undercover cops are vulnerable. And women, watch out, for the bad girls are trigger happy. The exception is a lounge singer, Darlene Sweet (impressive Tony winner, Cynthia Erivo), who needs to hookup with the corrupt priest to escape this hell, but with loot.

The location is Lake Tahoe on the border of Nevada and California, a figurative crossroads for everyone, where the wrong step can take you to life or death. I'm beginning to sound like Twilight Zone's Rod Serling, and rightfully so because there's a claustrophobia to these surroundings, wherein the sins of mankind are scrutinized for their immorality, where redemption is rare, and a lesson can be learned.

As Father Flynn candidly comments, "I'm Old. S**t happens. Get the whiskey." That's Goddard's charmingly amoral world, where even a priest has issues.
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First Man (2018)
It's a splendid ride worth taking in history.
10 October 2018
"You're a bunch of guys making models out of balsa wood! You don't have anything under control!" Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy).

After Janet, wife of Neil (Ryan Gosling), in 1969 has been told by Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) at Mission Control that they have everything under control for the moon landing project, Apollo 11, the audience has to agree with her that the control is dicey and probably rests mostly with the astronauts. As Janet implies, no one is completely in control, perhaps only fate is.

First Man is the story of the flying '60's, from Neil 's X-15 ride in 1961 ("bouncing off the atmosphere," as Mission Control says), to the Apollo 11 initiative as the crew prepares to land in 1969 on the moon. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) walk the walk.

Throughout, the film is as cool as President Kennedy seeing the obstacles merely a proving ground for the greatness of the US and mankind. It's a powerfully immersive film placing audience in the seat with the star sailors, especially Armstrong, as they go through the various stages of space flight from the important Gemini Project in 1961 to Apollo 11 in 1969.

The Apollo 13 film about the aborted 1970 Apollo lunar mission and The Right stuff about the first manned space flight by the US are romantically right on and visually glorious. A different kind of success for First Man is director Damien Chazelle's, who takes us into the cockpit in the air, and at Neil's home, for what are reality shows as they ought to be.

The glamour is in the sealed capsules and the ingenuity of the astronauts, whose engineering skills are amply used in harrowing glitches. The reality is the possibility of failure and death families must live with each day.

The point of view is mostly Armstrong's even when he's not at the controls. Jane is unlike many other whimpering, complaining wives in films where the men do the daring; like Armstrong, she's cool, and especially when she exhorts him to explain to his sons that he might not return from the moon. She's tough with the right stuff for a partner in what the film shows to be an icily daring and dangerous profession.

First Man is a story of history, adventure, sentiment, and humanity. It has it all, and while some may complain we don't see the colorful earth and moon enough, Chazelle has shown what the astronauts saw, not what film makers would have liked them to see.

"That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."

What Neil Armstrong supposedly said with his first step on the moon. Regardless of the "a" or not "a," the act was "a giant leap for mankind." First Man is an exciting piece of history writ large and realistically. Be prepared for quite a ride.

Celebrate the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's walk.
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A measured, realistic look at the consequences of "stop and frisk."
7 October 2018
If Monsters and Men were a more incendiary testimony to police brutality, as its title suggests, the audience would be fired up to demonstrate in favor of minorities who have been wronged in "stop-and-frisk" injustices. Fortunately, it's not more volatile; it is rather a thoughtful, albeit measured, rumination on racism and inequality.

Debut director, Reinaldo Marcus Green, takes a careful look at an event that sounds like the death of Eric Garner in 2014 Staten Island. In Brooklyn's Bed-Stuy neighborhood, Nuyorican Manny (Anthony Ramos) witnesses an innocent youth murdered by a policeman in an all-too frequent stop of young black men. Manny spends the first part of the film tortured about the right thing to do with his evidence.

In a second of three segments, black patrol officer Dennis (John David Washington) is conflicted between his loyalty to the force and his understanding of how the system does not favor black men. Although he's dropped from the rest of the film, he represents the moral quandary about the injustices and the fact that some characters will not follow the usual clichés of these message-type dramas.

The film doesn't so much as preach, either through voiceover or ponderous character, as it shows the daily indignities of young NYC black men in the white-dominated system that makes justice elusive for him and his peers.

In the final segment of the tryptic, Zyric (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) is a gifted young athlete forced by his conscience to join the protest against brutality and at the same time jeopardize his future to play pro baseball. Like Monsters and Men, Zyric asks you to join him deciding to do the right thing. Not everyone does.
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Venom (2018)
Not your dad's super-hero villain, Venom will not bore you.
4 October 2018
Venom is a surprise: It's funny; it's mad; and much to my delight, it has an antihero more interesting than a pile of other Marvel superheroes on most days. Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is an ace TV street reporter who manages to lose his job pursuing a demented inventor, Dr. Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), while managing to become the host for an ugly but sometimes comical slimy alien parasite or "symbiote."

Although film Venom is replete with the usual superhero tropes like the slow-to-get-it love interest, Anne (Michelle Williams), the demented scientist, the threat to the world, and toothy monsters, it has a levity Deadpool could admire, but to a much lesser extent. Not a small number of light moments come from the dialogue between Eddie and his occupying alien Venom, who decides he likes Eddie and the planet so he won't be the one to destroy it. There are others like him to do it.

As in so many of these horror, sci fi thrillers, the amount of violence from explosions and body tossing is too much. Director Ruben Fleischer could have minimized the scenes and substituted more of the ironic dialogue that makes this a watchable adventure. Scott Rosenberg and the other writers are up to the task.

Hardy's winning characterization of a rough-around-the-edges hero who has to stop evil is punctuated with naivete, innocence, and a sense of justice and humor. With no Spiderman to distract him, Venom can form a friendship with his parasite that, as they shamble away together, may remind some of the super classic, Casablanca.

Hardy is no Bogey, but his Brock is quirky and eccentric enough for me to hope for a sequel, even with Spiderman to distract.
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A fine addition to the Star is Born canon.
3 October 2018
"Maybe it's time to let the old ways die." Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper)

After three previous versions at A Star is Born, director/co-writer/star Bradley Cooper has added a version worthy of the best of them. Cooper's Jack is a charismatic rocker whose flaw is substance abuse, and Lady Gaga's singer/songwriter, Ally, is an ingenuous talent who remains innocent through all the shenanigans required to be a star, not born but made.

Her opening number strutting on a bar singing La Vie en Rose clarifies why Jack fell for her immediately and why she is headed to glory. As the opening lyric might suggest, they are change agents for each other, not always in easy transitions.

Although the two first movies were about Hollywood, and the dangers of stardom we all knew even in 1937 and 1954, then Streisand's (1976) and Cooper's are all music, with Cooper's superior take a lived-in rock atmosphere. In that way, Cooper's is even better than Almost Famous.

Streisand and Kristoferson seem to exist for Streisand where Cooper's couple is deeply in love but not strong enough to save Jack. Although I tire of Jack's incessant drinking, a tedium to watch after a few minutes, I accept it as the tragic element of a cliched story about the glory and the hell of the biz. Both Cooper and Gaga sing with such depth of feeling it is hard not to shed a tear at the sad outcome.

The film is also strong about the challenges of that road to stardom, uncompromising as it displays the forces changing Ally from a wholesome natural singer to a manufactured pop singer and marginalize Jack for being a substance abuser and too old. The resonance today with the #MeToo emphasis on male domination is only too obvious. However, Cooper transforms Maine into a loving, not jealous lover.

The times they are a'changin'.
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Realistic and fantastic, a perceptive and artistic look at three young brothers in an unselttled world.
1 October 2018
"The young always have the same problem - how to rebel and conform at the same time. They have now solved this by defying their parents and copying one another." Quentin Crisp

This year has arguably no more impressionist yet realistic narrative than We the Animals. Based on Justin Torres' autobiographical novel, it tells of three adolescent brothers from a mixed-race couple (she white, he Puerto Rican). They survive their parents' volatile relationship by creating their own fantasy world or simply hiding from abuse.

The discursive plot allows their world to become interrelated set pieces of watching their parents work out their conflicts with director Jeremiah Zagar's assured point of view frequently from the boys'. Occasionally levitation punctuates the story in a magic realism that gives a poetic gloss to the hardscrabble journey.

Among the many lovely angles is Ma (Sheila Vand) coddling the poetic Jonah (Evan Rosado), whose gradual discovery that he's gay is subtly handled. His notes and illustrations hidden under his bed provide a punctuation for the rough world above the blankets.

Despite the family's dismal blue-collar challenges in upper New York State, the boys show a resilience to give hope to an essentially unsettled life. The artfulness of the magical realism and Jonah's writings lend a sympathetic cast to the proceedings. Zagar and co-writer Daniel Kitrosser offer a home not entirely grungy, in fact rather tidy, that suggests order can prevail.

Symbolically the water motif, with images of drowning and rainy cleansing, helps coordinate the despair and hope inherent in the story. Nick Zammuto provides just the right low-key music of sadness and kindness. In all, the film coalesces around the challenges of disadvantaged boys surviving the rain into the sun.

It's not easy.

"It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are." e. e. cummings
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Memoir of War (2017)
An immersive art-house memoir of WWII. It's a work of cinematic art.
30 September 2018
"In Paris, I found myself surrounded by Germans; they were all over the place. They played music, and people would go and listen to them! All along rue de Rivoli, as far as you could see from place de la Concorde, there were enormous swastika banners five or six floors high. I just thought, This is impossible." Pearl Witherington Cornioley

While many on all sides of WWII suffered immeasurably, along with them was Marguerite (Melanie Thierry), not suffering the physical slings but emotionally tortured waiting for the return during liberation of her imprisoned resistance husband, Robert (Emmanuel Bourdieu). Memoir of War is a slow burn of waiting, expertly paralleling her longing for his return as we suffer a long but engrossing expectation with her.

Director/writer Emmanuel Finkiel, skillfully adapting the discursive Marguerite Duras novel, based on her experience, provides a linear story that simmers with desire for Robert's return while she spurns attention from a resistance colleague, Dionys (Benjamin Biolay), and a Nazi collaborator Pierre Rabier (Benoit Magimel). Finkiel's constant closeups of her cinematic face reveal the subtle torture she goes through as she spurns Dionys's advances and barters with Rabier for her husband's return.

After the Rabier sequences, the film almost exclusively centers on her turmoil of waiting until a denouement worthy of a potboiler depicting the converging conflicts of her loyalty in the face of Robert's imminent return. The film successfully immerses us in her waiting and her conflicts, as anyone who has, for instance, endured the slow death of a loved one to a disease. I suspect that torture is similar to waiting for a prisoner to return, probably a skeleton of himself looking already close to death if not almost there already.

Memoir of War, depicting the life of an acclaimed memorist, novelist, and author of the classic Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), is not for the frequently ADD American audience (admittedly, it is too long for almost any audience); it belongs to the province of thoughtful cinephiles who love the quiet characterization of grand souls in conflict.

Superhero film this is not; classic European filmmaking with a substantial heroine it is.
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Hal (2018)
It's not the computer but one of the best '70's directors and in film history.
29 September 2018
In the golden age of American films of the '70's, Hal Ashby was a director with nine outstanding character-driven, socially-conscious successes including Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Being There, Coming Home, and Shampoo. (And that all happened after his acclaimed as an editor in the '60's with Oscar for In the Heat of the Night). Because I took my daughter, Thea, to see Harold and Maude, she claims its influence in directing her to writing and editing scripts because of its warmth and anarchic humor.

The latter characterizes the independent and roguish subject of an inspiring doc by accomplished editor Amy Scott. It's as complete a biography of Ashby as could be hoped for emphasizing his creativity and zeal accompanying his recurring battles with suits who promised full support until they saw his wild conceptions and raw language.

Insight into his outsized work and personality is shared by his long-time cinematographer Haskell Wexler; his frequent editing collaborator, Robert Jones; and devoted stars such as Jeff Bridges, Jane Fonda, Jon Voight, and Warren Beatty. Powerful testimony from Judd Apatow and Alexander Payne, among others, confirms that Hal was film royalty. They all say he inspired them as artists.

His personal life was complicated by his five marriages (he loved women and consistently smoking weed. While the latter calmed down his raging passion for film, the former provided the drama he apparently needed to survive off his dramatic sets.

The documentary Hal itself reflects the surreal inclinations and dark wit of its subject (see Being There for parallels to current politics and Harold and Maude for endearing eccentricity). The doc doesn't overwhelm the audience with idolatry for Ashby because its apparent purpose is to give an honest accounting about one of the best directors in Hollywood history, about whom the general audience knows little.

Here's your chance to learn more and get an insight into filmmaking at the same time. Very few documentaries are as complete, respectful, and critical as Hal
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Juliet, Naked (2018)
Sweet and honest, a delightful rom-com.
28 September 2018
Juliet, Naked is a rom-com with its head on straight. Neither over the top nor dark, it strikes the right tone of realism and romance despite the formulaic approach of boy meets girl, etc. Rose Byrne's protagonist, Annie, a smart and strong-willed anthropologist and curator at a small museum in a Brit seaside town, has a balanced profile of wit and realism. She's a lady not easily seduced by ancient rocker, Tucker (Ethan Hawke), who comes into her life via the Internet and her boyfriend, Duncan (Chris O'Dowd).

Typically for a romantic comedy, Annie is bored with professor/lover Duncan and finds his scholarly preoccupation with Tucker to be tedious. Until she meets Tucker, and the real romance of this comedy begins.

Director Jesse Peretz and his writers skillfully adapted the Nick Hornby novel to keep the tone light despite a heart attack and multiple progeny by different women having Tucker scramble for sanity when they all meet in the hospital. That is one of the film's fine moments of a lunatic family reunion. Contrasting the de-riled family, Annie turns out to be an anchor for Tucker, with whom she had already formed an Internet connection.

The nice thing about this budding romance is it's slow, not sex filled, and rooted in a skepticism on both sides that rings true in the face of a rom-com formula frequently demanding instant passion and commitment. Even Duncan, his scholarly interest in Tucker bordering on obsessive, comes off as in love with Annie, but not silly, just self-absorbed and oblivious to her needs.

Juliet, Naked is a fresh take on the rom-com, easy going and poignant, but infused with enough love to make the romance authentic and the comedy light enough to allow for genuine affection in the face of daunting family and professional intrusions.
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Even some Trumpites may like this doc.
24 September 2018
"Yes, I will show you some stuff about Trump that you haven't seen, but if you're coming to see the pee tape, you're going to the wrong movie." Michael Moore

By now most moviegoers are aware of Michael Moore's left-leaning documentaries from jousting with General Motors to the NRA. His hallmark is himself as he intrudes on his target's home turf to occupy too much space in the frame and the faces of his prey. While his Fahrenheit 9/11 scared us with its reveal about the Bush administration's manipulation of the 9/11 responses, this Fahrenheit will scare the bejesus out of you in its indictment of our democracy that spawned Donald Trump.

In Fahrenheit 11/9, he turns to Donald Trump, whom he ultimately compares to famous fascists, not the least of them Hitler. Although this film sounds like nectar for a liberal, Moore effectively limits Trump's presence and maximizes footage, not showing his well-known flaws but rather emphasizing the power of the people to effect change and the power of those who put him in power, as well as what to expect from a Nazi-like administration.

After a stunning opening, which slickly shows Hillary Clinton's seemingly-inevitable rise to the presidency, he settles in to the Trump reality, which spawns insurgencies from national teachers' strikes to young people reacting against guns and their lobbies after the Parkland massacre. Moore is comfortable with letting Trump's influence be under the radar while Moore emphasizes our complicity in Trump's ascendency and the growing populist power of peaceful protest to effect change.

Make no mistake, Trump's demagoguery seems to lie at the heart of the reactions, and it's here that Moore is most effective. In fact, when he depicts Obama caving to political power in the Michigan water crisis rather than saving the common people, Moore gains credibility that he is not just a mouthpiece for the Dems. In addition, Nancy Pelosi and Bill Clinton are depicted as giving into the corporate powers. Uncharacteristically, Moore indicts both sides.

The virtue of Fahrenheit is its willingness to sail calmly amidst the unrest over Trump; its vice is, per usual, Moore's unwillingness to deal with Trump achievements. Such bias in inherent in most documentaries, which will present the best case from their point of view. It's just that Moore has had a super-bias reputation, well-deserved, that now is adjusted to a softer angle of vision.

That angle is to encourage voters to turn out in November to oppose Trumpites and support candidates who will acknowledge the needs of the middle class. Action on all fronts is what's needed, not ineffective words. Whether or not the populace can support a polarizing but effective Bloomberg could be the subject for another Michael Moore documentary.
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Tame horror, great pumpkins.
19 September 2018
My knowledge of kids' fantasy horror stories ranges from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to Something Wicked This Way Comes to Goosebumps, to Harry Potter, all a bit odd, none too horrible. However, a heavy dose of that eccentric comes with the newest children's fantasy, The House with a Clock in Its Walls. The nerdiest kids should like this film; the normal maybe not so much because it lacks heavy horror!

Young orphan Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) goes to stay with his Uncle, Jonathan (Jack Black) and neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchette). So far so good except the adults are witch and warlock and the boy precocious and eccentric. As Jonathan learns the basics of magic (not the benign Harry Potter stuff), he also learns that the dead magician Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) has tricked out his sumptuous Victorian mansion with a doomsday clock, whose discovery now is essential for mankind's survival and whose location must be found.

It is too convoluted a story to recount except that Lewis learns about necromancy and indomitability along with a bushel of new words fitting an emerging intellectual magician, albeit strange to his classmates. Lamentably, most of the horror tropes are broad and tame. A lion defecating on the nearest boy, however, should please the younger audience.

Youngsters may squirm at raising the dead while teens can easily survive that Halloween staple. Adults will be amused although disappointed at how little the comely Blanchette is used and how little humor the too-often serious Black is in a role made to order for his goofiness. Together, however, they are a comedy team worth noting. Good chemistry.

The magic of Harry Potter is not here while some of its charm resides with Lewis and the gifted witch, Mrs. Zimmerman. Along the way the film makes points about the destructiveness of wars and offers oddly funny set pieces such as when, for example, Blanchette head butts a pumpkin.

Audiences will magically or not flock to this unusually low-key horror treat. Just don't think about that lion.
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Mandy (I) (2018)
Cage is delightfully over the top.
17 September 2018
If you are comfortable with Sam Remi's Evil Dead trilogy, then you should be relaxed and receptive for Panos Cosmatos' Mandy. It stars the ever-manic Nick Cage (a must see for those hooked on his regularly hyperbolic delivery) as Red Miller, a recluse living in the appropriately-named Shadow Mountains of California.

Idyllic it is for him and his wife, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), accompanied by some swelling and thunderous background music that does an effective job of supporting the mood. As it happens, this is a horror/revenge movie, so their lovely days are numbered thanks to alien motorcyclists and some very bad Jesus freaks (it is, after all, 1983), who abduct her and do some Evil-Dead-worthy torture on her.

Red is off to apply his gory brand of revenge for each of the miscreants. The plot doesn't indulge in much detective work because it's the justice he metes out that interests us, along with some phantasmagoric bloody-red background and an ample supply of fire (Hell, Anybody?).

Writer/director Cosmatos' care of the genre is no more apparent than his dueling chainsaw sequence, where Texas and every other rowdy state can have fun watching the mayhem. Laughs aren't plentiful, but the cultural tropes about women as seductresses and religion as maddening are solidly in place.

As in Cage's Ghost Rider and other strange semi-supernatural biker stories, he grimaces and shouts under the influence of alcohol and unknown substances, no doubt in joy that he can pay his alimonies and further compromise his Oscar. As for us, cringing in safety is a major delight of horror films in general and Mandy in particular.

Why the powerful soundtrack doesn't treat us to Manilow's '70's sentimental ballad Mandy is a bit baffling. But no more so than why Cage continues to make a living in strange movies.

"You vicious snowflake." Red Miller to a brutal alien.
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A story to intrigue and depress you.
12 September 2018
"I am surprised that many people disregard the fact that the end for almost all drug dealers ends up being the cemetery or the jail cell, we do not know of any case where a drug dealer has 'retired.' " Juan Pablo Escobar

Arguably the gloomiest film of the year, White Boy Rick tells of teen Ricky Wershe (Richie Merritt) in 1980's Detroit sucked into drug dealing by both his poverty and the encouragement of the police, who use him in their fruitless campaign to stop the flow. Although Ricky is essentially naïve, his father Rick, played by the excellent Matthew McConaughey, is not.

As a registered arms dealer, he is well aware of the dangers of the drug business, trying to steer his son clear of it, and himself. The decaying buildings of Detroit are an apt metaphor for the decline of the family that includes aging grandparents and a struggling sister, Dawn (Bel Powley). No one is unaffected by Ricky's careless descent, yet the presence of the police gives them hope for a better ending.

The film, based on a true story, makes its point about the injustice of non-violent convictions as Ricky, even through the intercession of the FBI, is given life. Michigan's minimum calls for it, although after Ricky, the law was changed.

After being a street hustler, drug kingpin, and FBI informant, ricky served 30 years before being paroled. Although his small child can give him hope for a complicated future with her, most who leave the theater can only shakes their heads at a family reduced to crime and a system whose crime is to exceed reason with its judgments.

To see a more sophisticated version of this low-life world, see Johnny Depp play Boston's premier hood, Whitey Bulger, in Black Mass. Although Depp's performance mirrors McConaughey's, Black Mass has more depth of story and overall acting. If you enjoyed McConaughey in his award-winning Dallas Buyers Club role, watch him as a much grittier dealer here-he more than anyone else can make you feel grimy.
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The Wife (I) (2017)
Fine acting in a theater-like film full of surprises.
12 September 2018
I can only imagine the number of mature women in the audience for The Wife rolling their eyes in sympathy as underappreciated wife Joan (Glen Close) watches her titanic husband, Joe (Jonathan Price), receive the Nobel Prize for literature. This drama, listed as a comedy but only in the loosest way, thunders with the realism that Henrik Ibsen helped foster.

The acting in this theater-like, unassuming domestic drama, is some of the best of the year. Their son, David, played with delicacy and insight by Max Irons, is perplexed and angry at his father for neglecting to talk to his son about a short story David wrote recently. He has the right confusion any son of a genius might have when his dad is receiving the top literary prize. Regrettably the film overdoes the tension.

Annie Starke as young Joan is a revelation, an actress of such subtlety, that she conveys only a hint of the stress to come from the clash of her gifts and the demands of his profession. Always she is subsumed under his glory, not with regret but rather with peaceful resignation to his greater good. By the way, Starke is Close's daughter.

Paternalism is ubiquitous in the last half of the 20th century, with its deep-seated denial of the right of women like Joan to blossom along with their husbands. In addition to that commonality is the power of famous men, in this case a prize-winning author, to seduce women on a regular basis. Although Bill Clinton took the top prize, Joe is right behind him in the creepy sweepstakes.

Seeing this film is like seeing a fine drama in the West End of London-the writing (Jane Anderson) is almost, but not really, eclipsed by the acting. Would that the private stories of son and would-be biographer, Nathaniel (a fine Christian Slater), for instance, had more time, replacing, perhaps Joan's early classroom recollections.

If for nothing else, see the re-creation of the Nobel process and be reminded about the glory of writing and the price to be paid. Finally, be surprised at a reveal that fits only too well with Joan's frustration at being her husband's handmaiden.
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Get into the head of tennis's "superbrat." One of the best docs ever.
11 September 2018
"When I walk out there on court, I become a maniac... Something comes over me, man." John McEnroe

John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection is the documentary we have waited a lifetime for: The titular tennis titan was photographed decades ago by cinematographer Gil de Kermadec but never so well displayed as in this perfect documentary by Julien Faraut using Kermadec's footage. Call it a "found footage" doc if you will.

Faraut's engaging approach is to have minimal but incisive voiceover while using often the ¾ view to concentrate on McEnroe's body and language to understand the range and passion of his perfectionism. Few documentaries are able to get inside the artist's head the way Faraut does.

Along the way is a good portion of entertainment as McEnroe berates line judges, chair referees, cameramen, and spectators, all of whom he probably believed couldn't know the sport as well as he.

His petulant "superbrat" mien makes engaging sports viewing, and Faraut's doc is equally so but with a deeper desire to understand the tennis bad boy's motivations. Although seeing this film brings us closer to McEnroe's demons, it doesn't completely explain them.

Faraut seems to believe that McEnroe's constant competitor is himself with the understanding that everyone should know that the forces of competitiveness and perfectionism account for his eccentric and erratic behavior. Given Serena Williams' recent outburst, this remarkable doc helps us understand better our gifted athletes.

"What is the single most important quality in a tennis champion? I would have to say desire, staying in there and winning matches when you are not playing that well." McEnroe
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It's all there but the smoking gun.
31 August 2018
Active Measures: "Soviet term for the actions of political warfare conducted by Russian security forces to influence the course of world events."

The documentary Active Measures packs more information and images than could ever be processed in one sitting. Its strength is therefore a mass of examples for the collaboration of Russia with a variety of interests to skewer the 2016 presidential election.

Such sources as Hillary Clinton, John Podesta, and John McCain make their case for the influences, and the images from the media and interviews are crisp and to the point. To find out that President Putin may be the wealthiest man in the world is just one of the small bits to titillate those of us who have witnessed pretty much everything this full doc discloses.

The assault of information is so relentless and the pace so machine gun like, it's becomes difficult to process it all. A slower and fuller presentation with half the material would have given a solidly informative and entertaining film.

By the way, although fulsome, the doc does not provide a smoking gun for anything like treason or impeachment. It does show in its detail the pervasive corruption in governments on both sides of the seas.
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Soft, classy summer horror film.
30 August 2018
The Little Stranger is a little stranger than most horror films: It's more psychological drama and less shock. It's an understated nerve racker that eats away at your anticipation till you're a part of the haunted house that captures most entering it. A pleasant summer thrill.

Post WWII 1948, Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) takes a call at Hundreds Hall, where mom was a maid and where the Ayres family is on its way to extinction, slowly and horror-film ominously. Yet there are no jump scares, no ugly beings, just the sense that things are not right, with a strange sound or rabid dog to keep the fans on edge.

As in Poe's Fall of the House of Usher, the Hundreds Hall's decay is figurative for the decline of family as well, no better example being the scarred and crippled Roderick (remember Roderick Usher?) from war, who is on the brink of letting the estate go to sale while he feels a bad karma in the house.

At the same time, faraday is telling us in flashback about his strange attachment to the estate from an early childhood party on its lawn after WWI, where celebrating the end of the war to end all wars introduced his working class sensibility to high class and a little girl who doesn't go away after she dies.

She seems to be the little stranger who still haunts Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling). At any rate, the film suggests an almost abnormal attachment by Faraday and a death struggling attachment by the rest of the family including his love interest, daughter Caroline (Ruth Wilson). From here the story takes some formulaic turns, no surprises.

Yet, The Little Stranger has a Brit restraint that lends itself some nice horror moments. Especially effective is director Lenny Abrahamson's, and his writers,' unwillingness to show too much or give answers even at the end. Classy little film.
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Searching (III) (2018)
Social media and a parent's love is a a toxic mix.
30 August 2018
Who would have thought watching computer screens on the big screen could be so engaging and make us identify with characters as we should were there not a computer in sight? Searching is a psychological thriller with a tech underpinning that goes humanly beyond expectations yet satisfying the geek that loves the banks of screens in other more garden-variety thrillers these days.

David (John Cho) and his daughter, Margot (as adult, Michelle La), are close, especially after the death of his wife and her mother, Pamela (Sara Sohn). When Margot goes missing, a full search ensues, headed by a highly competent Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing). David's discovery that he doesn't know his daughter as well as he thought is central to the distancing feeling cyber space gives us all . The unique experience in this film is that the search and the surrounding dramatics are all depicted through the computer screen. For a dramatic experience, nothing is lost to the technology.

As David is an engineer with an expert's use of the computer, the thrills come through his navigation of the Web mostly the use of Google and social media such as Facebook and Instagram and a fictional streaming site called You Cast. Sometimes he uncovers information, a bit at a time, frequently even more than the police do.

While he gets incrementally and slowly closer to what happened to Margot, the audience is drawn into the bond between the two with a recognition that this could happen to any of us. The opening montage of photos from the family's halcyon days establishes the film's dexterity in developing character, even through static images.

In other words, we feel his pain. Searching, however, slips into thriller tropes, none weaker than the "reveal" denouement. Admittedly, freshman director Aneesh Chaganty spends too much time in the setup to the detriment of more time with the investigation, and that ending lets too much plot unveil with dialogue referencing it.

Searching is solid storytelling and satisfying characterization that defy our deadening daily experience in front of a screen.
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