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To be enjoyed along with summer.
23 May 2018
"Let me give you some advice. Assume everyone will betray you. And you will never be disappointed." Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson)

Just when you thought you had your fill of summer heroes, especially the sci-fi kind, along comes Solo: A Star Wars Story, to let you know there is room for one more. Han Solo, arguably the most beloved Star Wars character outside of Princess Leia, gets an early handsome face from Alden Ehrenreich, an actor with a Jack Nicholson bad-boy voice and a smile somewhere between Dennis Quaid's and Nicholson's.

As for Tobias Beckett, mercenary disguised as a soldier, the above quote tells it all-even he is not to be trusted. From that premise comes all the delightful naughtiness in the Star Wars galaxy.

The young Solo meets future buddies Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and appropriately in love with Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke), like him a child of the mob-dominated 'hood destined to escape and become a heroine of several faces. The story of these characters' troubled relations with bad guy Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), as they attempt heists to get them money for their freedom is the template for the story's action.

Otherwise Solo is a foundation for character, especially Han's, who will forever be the wisecracking jockey, self-proclaimed best pilot of the galaxy. Prove that he does with aerial combat to rival the best in the Star Wars canon.

His light-hearted quips ("I've got a good feeling about this," he says in extricating from a dire circumstance) are vintage Han. His heart is not far behind his bravery as multiple times he saves others at his own peril. His devotion to saving Qi'ra is the bedrock of his humanity.

Although Dryden is a formidable enemy, he is no Darth Vader. No matter, for this entry into the Star Wars myth is a successful summer adventure, able to stand on its own as enjoyable stuff that need not fit into a fan boy's obsession with the iconic previous action films imbedded in our cultural imaginations by George Lucas.

Solo: A Star Wars Story is to be enjoyed like a soft summer day.
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McCarthy owns this comedy.
10 May 2018
If good comedy can marry the outrageous with the meaningful, then Melissa McCarthy's Life of the Party is a fine party of a film. It's outrageous that she as middle-aged Deanna can go back to college and pal it up with her daughter, Maddie (Molly Gordon), and meaningful to show the positive fruits of hard work to overcome hardships.

Although not every scene or line evokes hilarity, many are spot on in part because McCarthy has the timing to make almost any joke effective, but also because honesty and truth underlie almost every setup. For instance, as Deanna faces divorce from Dan (Matt Walsh), she decides to finish college despite lack of funds and the sheer improbability of integrating with young college students. Her lines are often silly but tinged with a love for life that makes them both funny and poignant. The kids love her.

One of the most improbably interesting and moving bits has her making an oral presentation, for which she has had a life-long fear. Director Ben Falcone (McCarthy's husband and third time collaborator of Tammy, The Boss) and writers Falcone and McCarthy play the pain longer than usual and resolve it in an unromantic but plausible way. While they do not fall into the clichéd voiceover to tell us this is how life may often resolve itself, they let the sequence rest among the small occurrences of life from which a valiant person like Deanna might survive.

Even though there are too many sorority sisters to fully develop their characters, the film has an undercurrent of goodness that promises everyone, like Deanna, will come out well if they are honest in their pursuits, both of books and of love. As for the wedded relationship of Falcone and McCarthy, the unevenness of the comedy suggests they might consider not collaborating next time.

Deanna need be only a loving mother and student to gain the respect of her classmates. No heroics like those of Indiana Jones (she is, after all an archaeology student) are necessary, just good intentions. Yes, Life of the Party is funny; it is also an effective commentary on loving one another as the true graduation with honors.
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Yeah, every bit as good as critics say and more.
30 April 2018
Because my index for great epic adventure is dictated by Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, the Marvel heroic tales like Avengers: Infinity War supply my modern need to experience excellence but fall short of Homer's weighty themes and complex characters. However, with super-human visuals, contemporary heroic films do a credible job of taking the place of my imagination.

Not that that substitution is preferable to Homer's working my mind to create Cyclops and Sirens and assorted baddies as well as the original modern smart hero, Odysseus.

The Avengers and their buddies must come together to fight the mighty Thanos (Josh Brolin), whose goal as he decimates half the universe's population is to possess all six infinity stones. Because Vision (Paul Bettany) has the last one, you have an idea what the ending choreography will look like.

Yes, there will be the usual explosions and guns, which still strike me as incredulously outdated even though super-hero films abound with the munitions. I see in Infinity fewer explosions and fistfights than I have previously witnessed, a source of my abiding criticism of this genre. The Russo brothers directors have judiciously larded the film with these tropes while leaving plenty of room for wisecracks, a joy for me.

Nobody does them better than Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), with his better-than-thou intelligence and impeccably caustic wit: "I swore off dairy, then Ben and Jerry's named a flavor after me."Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt) has some good ones as well: "Let's talk about this plan of yours. I think it's good, except it sucks. So let me do the plan, and that way, it might be really good." I like the witty repartee much more than the explosions.

With as many major warriors as could be possible on one screen, Infinity rarely develops character as we should expect in any drama, Greek or otherwise. Yet, the writers and directors can then guarantee the action to be constant and no one fall asleep, except those hard-core comic-book fans that wait for the scene after the end credits.

The final conflict guarantees a financially-rich opening for part two, which will have to move some to match the record-breaking first weekend take for Infinity. Homer would be happy enough with the new epics but much happier that his adventurers are guaranteed infinity or at least immortality.
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Entertaining and enlightening.
30 April 2018
Although in the '60's I knew famous artists could live in hovels, I never imagined the way Alberto Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush), the famous sculptor/painter, lived. In Final Portrait, his grimy Parisian first-floor apartment is strewn with famous spindly-limbed sculptures amid broken pottery and glass with an easel on which he paints a portrait of his friend, James Lord (Armie Hammer).

I am usually critical of stories about painters because these biopics rarely give insight into the artistic process (Girl with a Pearl Earring, Frida, and Pollock among my favorites, but disappointing that way), concentrating rather on the dynamic personal life. However, Final Portrait lets us sit with his subject and ingest the cranky chaos that has already bred world-wide fame.

While his wife Annette Arm (Sylvie Testud), is in attendance, the artist carries on at length with a delightful prostitute, Caroline (Clemence Poesy), goes to dives, disrespects money, chain smokes, and generally acts like the Bohemian he is.

Such seems the stereotype, but writer/director Stanley Tucci deftly adapts Lord's book, A Giacometti Portrait, to let us experience the disarray of the process that takes weeks. The artist is disappointed multiple times, starts over, yet really believes no portrait is ever finished.

Alberto Giacometti keeps us hoping that another day of Lord's sitting will produce a result, yet another day comes and goes into weeks. Lord, a writer, is remarkably patient as we all know genius will not be hurried. When it's over, however, you can bet on its being world-class.

Rush is charming as the disheveled genius, while Hammer is handsome, as always, and subdued in the artist's presence. I was not bored for a second because I felt like a visitor witnessing the workings of chaotic brilliance, a true friendship, and the essence of Parisian artistic life.

Sit back and enjoy an artist at work. It may seem slow, but it's not.
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A finely wrought drama
23 April 2018
Love After Love should continue the prepositional phrase forever because the major players in this finely wrought drama are forever looking for love or grieving about it. Matriarch Suzanne (Andie MacDowell) loses her husband and wanders around her two sons almost in a fog of grief but maybe more in puzzlement about how they are working out their fates without her influence.

They are flawed adults, like womanizing son, Nicholas (Chris O'Dowd), who has a conflicted intimacy with his mother but more with himself as he wanders among showing the greatest puppy eyes in cinema. He is an emblem of the players who never seem at peace with their current or future partners.

This episodic, fragmented story, whose jumping back and forth in time is occasionally disorienting, in its unsympathetic way, reveals the puzzle-like lives of sentient beings who witness death, go through its mourning rituals, and search for love, carnal and otherwise, in, it would seem, a hedge against oblivion.

Co-writer/director Russell Harbaugh, in a promising debut, navigates smoothly in rough affective waters, saving the best scenes by interspersing them among some fairly quotidian events that play naturally to the death motif. When alcoholic son, Chris (James Adomian), does a standup about the difficulty of Jesus competing with his Father, the metaphor is not lost but not heavy-handed either. Both sons are struggling to compete with dad and themselves.

Love After Love is a satisfying drama about all of us in families we know have dysfunctional working parts but who are on the greatest quest of all for love after love, after love, after love, forever.
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A memorable assassin and a major social problem.
21 April 2018
"I want you to hurt them." Senator Votto (Alex Manette) to Joe (Joaquin Phoenix)

A Quiet Place is currently the only quieter film than Lynne Ramsey's You Were Never Really Here. Both have a smattering of dialogue; both use Cinema's trump card, visual imagery, to convey meaning. In this dark, urban thriller, lack of dialogue really doesn't matter because the consequences are mostly in Joe's ball-peen hammer weapon. A traumatized Gulf-War Vet and ex FBI agent, he is prepared for his job as a hit man rescuing sex-trafficked young women.

At no moment are we fully aware of Joe's traumas because director Lynne Ramsey lets us incrementally explore his abused past, from parental to spousal to multiple war hurts. Although her flashbacks are minimal and swift, we know enough and thankfully see little enough.

After accepting the job to find a NY Senator's daughter among the traffickers, Joe is remarkably successful, shedding little blood, at least for the careful camerawork of Tom Townsend, which sharply gives images or moves away from them leaving our imaginations to do the heavy lifting. Joe's success is short-lived after the senator is murdered, and Joe loses the daughter.

He furiously pursues the abductors, giving us chances to see inside his mind about how his mother, Afghanistan, and trafficked girls haunt him. While he appears to have regrets, mostly he is tormented by thoughts that he might not succeed this time.

Don't be surprised if you notice touches of Mean Streets, Taken, and and Hitchcock. The good news is that Joe's intentions are partly pure, albeit salve for his conscience about war. At any rate, Ramsey has created a memorable assassin and another strong case against trafficking.
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Lean on Pete (2017)
Not your standard boy-horse tale. It is natural and affecting, not sentimental.
19 April 2018
If you think Andrew Haigh's Lean on Pete, adapted from the novel by writer-musician Willy Vlautin, is a boiler plate boy and his horse idyll, then go see National Velvet. Here is the story of an underclass teen, 15 year old Charley (Charlie Plummer), who happens on a summer job tending stables and horses that gives him purpose and edges him into adulthood with love and tragedy.

Set in the Pacific Northwest's Portland, the unsentimental dramatic adventure has encounters with his single father, Ray, and girlfriends like a married secretary who brings Ray enormous trouble. Charley experiences loving that can be violent and survival that is uncertain.

Better is his experience with horses and a sleazy owner, Del (Steve Buscemi), who shows him how to tend the horses and eat in a civilized fashion, as well as the underbelly of horse racing in the boonies. Del, a complex character of the rough and soft, leads Charley to his first big love, aging quarter horse Lean on Pete, on whom Charlie will lean for emotional support as long as fate allows. Absconding with Pete to keep him from the slaughterhouse leads Charley to parlous times and tragedy but toward salvation.

The first half is chockfull of small experiences with the underclass, each member of whom is struggling to survive but not without a few raucous interludes. Basically, however, life in trailers and moveable horse races frequently leads to grim futures.

As with any teen, breaking with parents and guardians is crucial to maturation, and Charley is no different. When he and Pete take off to find long lost Aunt Margy (Alison Elliot), the broad vista of the West, dramatically photographed by Magnus Jonck, beckons the wanderers and portends dramatic challenges, not the least of which are the desert and unscrupulous adults.

Yet, listening to Charley confide about his life to Pete as they amble to the future is one of the film's understated delights. Like the film itself, we can exult in Charley's independence while fearing for his physical and mental safety.

As a youthful representative of a vulnerable class, Charley brings hope from his travels. Like a Steinbeck wanderer, he trudges to a problematic future as he builds on his brief but illuminating early-life experiences.

Just listen to the Bonnie Prince Billy cover of R. Kelly's "The World's Greatest" over the credits to catch his melancholy present and future, no longer leaning on Pete for survival.
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Beirut (2018)
Be smart. See it.
17 April 2018
"I was a child during the Lebanese civil war, and I remember Israeli bombardments. So growing up, my view of Israel was completely negative. I'm not coming from a neutral place, but with time, I've had to re-examine my thinking." Ziad Doueiri (Lebanese director)

In the early '80's, Lebanon, and specifically Beirut, was a cauldron of conflicts that involved the interests of the US, the PLO, Israel, Syria, and Druze Militias. Director Brad Anderson and writer Tony Gilroy, reminding us of his fine work with Michael Clayton, carefully steer us through the city's growing rubble to chronicle the negotiations for a CIA spy to be exchanged for a rebel leader. Think The Year of Living Dangerously, Argo, and John le Carre for similar suspense.

Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm), a former US diplomat and current drunk, is called in as a skilled negotiator to bring back his friend, CIA agent Cal Riley (Mark Pellegrino), in a prisoner exchange. Hamm is particularly effective as a martini-soaked Cold War survivor whose role stateside after Lebanon as a labor negotiator has ennui written all over him.

Yet, this gig is fraught with danger because no one is a fool, and the smart players are too canny to be conned by a smooth talker like Mason. He has the good fortune to have his back guarded by cultural attaché Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike), an operative with multiple motives but a good bet to save the day.

Although little hope resides yet for a peace between Arabs and Israelis, the film succeeds in fleshing out the multiple points of view that have kept the Mideast a stew of ambitions and hatred. In the end, the film Beirut is an espionage thriller featuring an unBond, avowedly alcoholic hero. In that regard, it offers nothing new in this genre, just good action suspense and a modicum of insight.

The pace of this frenetic thriller set in the Lebanese Civil War is quick and smart with just enough character development to satisfy the harshest critics and enough turns in the negotiations to keep discerning audiences attentive and engaged. Be smart: see it.
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Pfeiffer is powerful, the film dark.
12 April 2018
Where is Kyra? the title asks. Ostensibly she lives in Brooklyn, but her real location, for the purposes of this low-lit, depressing mise en scene, is the interior darkness of a middle-aged, jobless, depressed woman (Michelle Pfeiffer). Aided by Oscar-nominated Bradford Young's shadowy cinematography, director Andrew Dosunmu crafts a near perfect outward evocation of the spiritual loneliness of a woman who has recently lost her mother.

As her life spirals downward spiritually and financially, Kyra finds some solace in the arms of neighbor Doug (Kiefer Sutherland), a part-time job slacker, who tries as much as he can to comfort her even though he is marginalized by the film's lighting and proxemics. Kyra is desperately alone in a city that forgets about the aging, like the recurring motif of the elderly lady with the cane.

A light larceny is forcing itself on Kyra, and who can blame her? Her credit cards have maxed out, and the job interviews have led nowhere. Although this is not a real thriller, enough of the noirish urban danger bleeds through to confirm the despair so many down and outers must feel in that unforgiving world on NYC and its burbs.

Pfeiffer should be recognized for her remarkably restrained and deeply-felt role. Unfortunately, writer Darci Picoult has little dialogue for her, and the lighting is the most powerful vehicle for the despair of urban loneliness and poverty, poverty porn if you will.

Where is Kyra? has a European feel in its languor and an American vibe in its class inequality. It's solid fare for cinephiles and those who need an antidote for their optimism.
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Rampage (2018)
Silly, fun, and mindless but an enjoyable toss-off actioner.
12 April 2018
It's not even summer, but you can enjoy a popcorn, action thriller called Rampage just the way I did years ago with "B" movies. It's mindless fantasy based on a 1980s arcade video game about genetic experimentation that leads to outsized monsters as if they were the mutant sons of King Kong and Godzilla with a 50-foot tall bat-winged Colorado wolf thrown in for added horror.

Fear not because primatologist Davis Okoye (Dwayne Johnson) from the San Diego Wildlife Sanctuary comes to the rescue with outsized muscles himself and enough charm for the entire cast. What distinguishes this bundle of non sequiturs from my youthful experiences is Johnson's well-toned sense of humor, with quips kind of funny and surely soothing after its non-stop chases.

I won't dignify this silliness with a critic's attempt to find the profound in the ridiculous. I will simply say it is worth seeing when you want to be titillated and no more, when you want to see Johnson make an interspecies funny bromance with a congenial, motion-captured albino gorilla, George (and they are funny together), fight a giant lizard named Lizzie, and not feature his muscles as you might expect.

He doesn't need to because his comic timing has had successful workouts. Watch as well for Jeffrey Dean Morgan as a rogue government agent; his Texas twang is both amusing and menacing. Rampage is the sort of toss off adventure that will leave you laughing, partly because it's absurd fun and because Johnson is so charming.
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Foxtrot (II) (2017)
A first-rate drama from Israel.
10 April 2018
The loss of a child can bring unspeakable sorrow, caught in its essence by Samuel Moaz's Foxtrot a stunning study of an Israeli family's tragedy. Their fallen son is not just the Feldman family's loss; it can be an emblem of the Israeli storied toughness set against the absurdity of its fight and the cost to a relatively small but prominent world population.

Basically a tripartite film, Foxtrot's first section languishes with the father, Michael (Lior Ashkenazi), as he responds to the universal call of two soldiers coming up their sidewalk, announcing the death to a fainting mother, Daphna (Sarah Adler). Moaz's shots are largely close up and over head both intended for us to feel his pain and his alienation. Never do these shots seem artsy; they are where we would be if we could enter Michael's space and view him from a judgment pov.

For the second part, which shows the son, Jonathan (Yonotan Shiray), at a desert outpost, the camera is more distant and the light much brighter. As the narrative shows a soldier dancing with a rifle and an animated black and white sequence accompanied by a suckled breast, the tone has changed to playful and absurd. This airy sequence is appropriately comical to heighten the daily tragedies.

Part three is the natural outcome of grief, itself accompanied by the foxtrot of the title, a simple dance to counter the daunting complexity of death and its aftermath. The film is a study of loss and grief exacerbated by a gritty culture that does not negotiate with the enemy and constantly deals with the Holocaust in its grief-laden memory.

All this and more is in a remarkably deep and sometimes light study of war and its outcomes. Foxtrot was Israel's entry in the Oscar sweepstakes this year and deserving its considerable attention.
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Gemini (II) (2017)
A stylish thriller about Hollywood--Americans love this stuff.
10 April 2018
"Hollywood is a place where they'll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul." Marilyn Monroe

Gemini is cinematographer Andrew Reed's film, from the glamorous long shots of LA at night, the hideaway bars in the seedy sides, to the dazzlingly modern flats. Any weaknesses in the film itself are swamped by the visual grandeur. It's neo noir in muted neon and low-key suspense.

Movie star Heather (Zoe Kravitz) has charmed everyone who attends to her, even her not-rabidly devoted PA, Jill (Lola Kirke).Trouble brews when Heather bows out of a starring role and compromises several interested parties. After introducing a gun, director Aaron Katz has nowhere else to go according to convention other than to have the weapon return with its bloody purpose.

The thriller part is set, now, to be augmented by recurring motifs of friendship and loyalty, and something of a gay immediacy, lesbian to be precise. While the principals and their pals flirt with possibilities, the film is noir, after all, and requires detective work to flesh out the murderer with the attendant bad guys and girls and bleak setting.

The surprisingly low-key denouement with no appreciable thematic commentary leaves the mystery solved but weightless in human terms. Even a gloss of the industry's shallow hucksterism and uncontrollable ambitions would have been appreciated.

In the end, loyalty is the trump card that will propel the actors into another film with the same challenges and disappointments. Hollywood lives one despite intrigues and occasional murders. Thrillers about the biz will never die, and they will continue to draw us in given our fascination with tinsel town's ersatz loyalty. It's the only royalty we really have anymore.
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A Quiet Place (2018)
It will scare you.
6 April 2018
"Who are we if we can't protect them?" Evelyn (Emily Blunt)

As a thriller/horror film, A Quiet Place has its allegorical implications, in this case the parental imperative to protect children. Blind monsters plague the Abbott family, who dare not make a sound because those bad boys have acute hearing, with outsized ears to prove it, in their quest for food, human or otherwise.

In this above average nail-biter, writer/director John Krasinski is a deft suspense purveyor, ratcheting it up as the family gets closer to greeting the monsters in person. In adherence to the formula, the suspense builds from establishing the problem that the monsters have put the family in defensive mode, to the inevitable standoff.

Blunt and Krasinski (playing husband, Lee) are effective as a loving but challenged couple with two children and one on the way. Because the stars are married in real life, a close bond on film may be the reason they are so good in their roles. Because this is a horror film, our sympathy for the besieged fodder is enhanced by their real marriage.

The irony that complete quiet is the bane of the monsters is appropriate for millennials, who would wither if their smart phones were not noisily distracting them every hour of the day.
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Isle of Dogs (2018)
Another genial work from a genius.
5 April 2018
If you've seen Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox, then you know his depiction of animals with sympathetic and accurate human traits is detailed and enduring. So, too, is his recent Isle of Dogs, a rich about a dystopian Japanese city, Megasaki, 20 years into the future, which banishes its dog population to Trash Island over Dog Flu and Snout Fever, fake-newsed by the power brokers, who love cats.

Banter among the dogs reveals Anderson's tongue-in-cheek humor that fits snugly into the dog psyche: "I only ask for what I've always had, a balanced diet, regular grooming, and a general physical once a year." Duke (Jeff Goldblum) Somehow the writer/director makes you believe the dogs could talk with deadpan humor and retain their doggedness.

The central conflict is seen through 12-year old orphan Atari's (Koyu Rankin) search for his lost guard dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber), on the island, facilitating the story's childlike attachment to and search for meaningful love. Allegorically the larger picture fleshes out any totalitarian regime that would marginalize a segment, such as a minority or a race, for spurious reasons just to rid a country of dissent. Migration, as it is today, is the order of the day for the oppressed.

The dog rebellion could reflect Anderson's interest in the poor and oppressed fighting the establishment as he did in Grand Budapest Hotel or Fantastic Mr. Fox for that matter. "To the North, a long rickety causeway over a noxious sludge marsh, leading to a radioactive landfill polluted by toxic chemical garbage. That's our destination. Get ready to jump." Rex (Edward Norton) The landfill, of course, figuratively stands for the poverty of the minority and the criminal neglect of the majority.

Yet, here is a story rich in love for canines (just say the title very slowly for hidden laugh), the goodness of human beings who are fighting for freedom and equality, and Japanese culture and cinema (the decayed statute of Toshiro Mifune reminds us of acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa). Dogs speaking in English while Japanese speak native is a typical Anderson quirk.

This is Wes's beautifully stop-motioned story, a technique that allows for rich detail like a purple volcano and overhead shot of a kidney transplant. Japanese Taiko drummers punctuate the story for richly authentic detail. While the dialogue can be too cute at times and the voices not distinct enough, overall the island is a trove of canine-human delights, mostly that witty dialogue, and so fast that you'll want to visit the island again and again.

Isle of Dogs is about the longing of the human spirit to be free. The dogs refuse to be subordinated. No different today, no need to trump up the circumstances with wild comparisons. That's about what I said for Fantastic Mr. Fox. At least my affection for Anderson's genius is consistent.
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Outside In (2017)
Simply told story, memorable acting.
3 April 2018
Although Lynn Shelton's slice of small town Pacific Northwest life (pay attention Everett and Granite Falls) in Outside In is so authentic as to defy artful interpretations, it is a minimalist portrait of ambitions circumscribed and affections compromised. In other words, it elevates working class melodrama into art house heavy while retaining the hint of desperate housewives of any small town.

Almost 40-year old Chris (Jay Duplass) has been released from prison after 20 years with the aid of his do-gooder former teacher, Carol (Edie Falco). Arriving in Granite Falls, Washington State, he is faced with hitherto unsuspected expectations from the two leading ladies: Carol and her daughter Hildy (Kaitlyn Dever). A brief brush with another lady reminds us that a handsome bachelor, recently released from prison for being innocent, is fair game for romantically inclined small-town women.

Shelton's approach is to let the realism dominate without veering too sharply into contrived, ironic situations. Chris's adjustment into civilian life will be fraught with suspicion and jealousy, just as in the real world his siblings and friends have always lived.

Falco and Duplass are so believably good as two adults who need to start life over that you miss the clichés and unsurprising turns because the leads become family whose fates matter very much to us.

Outside In is not kitchen-sink drama; it is simply simple life warm, troubled, and endearing. And that acting . . . .

"There are aspects of small town life that I really like - the routine nature of it, the idea of people knowing you and your likes and dislikes." Cress Williams
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Unevenly funny satire about a decidely unfunny Russia.
30 March 2018
Moscow 1953 was good for notorious butcher/dictator Josef Stalin: He was completing the eradication of 20 million Soviets and so powerful that he could ask for a classical recording of a Mozart concert that required the orchestra, audience, and pianist to repeat the performance. Armando Iannucci's Soviet low-brow satire, The Death of Stalin, takes black comedy from his Veep territory to uncompromising, humorous honesty about ambition with the weight of history behind it.

Wisecracking acting general secretary and future premier Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) works before and after Stalin's (Adrian McLoughlin) death to ensure his ascendency to the top spot. Making certain security head Lavrently Beria is not going to be the new Stalin is just one of the successes for the conspiring Khrushchev, who could be mistaken for a Marx brother in one of their zany comedies. This adaptation of Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin's graphic novel is a wild foray into grim post-WWII politics.

At times, Buscemi is the consummate comedic actor, slightly underplaying while yet milking the laughs. When every other word is an f bomb, not so much. Jeffrey Tambor as interim premier Melankov is in the same spot-funny when he's not way over the top silly and clueless. Former Monty Python clown, Michael Palin, is wasted as foreign affairs minister Vyacheslav Molotov; Palin's presence promises more zany than actually happens. Mostly the Stalin acolytes act like they are school kids putting on a hapless comedy as they jockey for the top spot.

Not nearly as witty as Iannucci's The Loop, The Death of Stalin is still unevenly funny. Russian history in a condensed version is compelling when you consider the long tenure of Vladimir Putin and the rumors that float about his ruthlessness. Some things never change, comedy or not. "Don't worry, nobody's gonna get killed, I promise you. This is just a musical emergency!" Andreyev (Paddy Considine)
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Spielberg makes an exciting call home again.
28 March 2018
Steven Spielberg's world has always been virtual realities of adventure and nostalgia, from King Kong and T Rex toIndiana Jones and ET to Close Encounters. Once again in Ready Player One he goes adventure- fantastical into the gamers' world of the virtual where a hunt for an egg can be Easter's annual hunt or a serious search for happiness among goggles and graft. This film is solid Spielberg, not great Spielberg but with enough pop-cult allusions to please even the most fervid geek.

Young Parzival (Tye Sheridan) is the likeliest gamer to discover the three keys that will win the Easter egg and the vast Oasis empire, which has enslaved the world to games, and my Columbus, Ohio, in 2045. More like "mesmerized" because the world of trash and piled-high trailers or "stacks" is what the virtual gamers like him are hoping to escape.

No need for me, at least, to see how our civilization, and my precious city, is in danger of enslavement by smart phones. Just look anywhere in public to see the absorption technology engenders to the exclusion of old-fashioned socializing.

Recently I was a visiting professor at a high-end college classroom. As I walked in 10 minutes before class, every one of the 13 students was on a smart phone. Very depressing image about a time I used to cherish as an undergrad to gossip and schmooze face to face.

It's not difficult to figure out Spielberg's game of warning us all about our consuming games and more universally, smart phones. Yet that acclaimed director keeps his childlike fascination with the complexities of family and love, as Tye, like us, finds there's no place like the home and love, the latter the most real place on earth. Although the film misses the intimacy and poetry of his greatest hits, it provides enough adventure and sentiment to please the general public.

Great director Spielberg can dazzle with graphics lovely to behold and still juxtapose those fantasies with real world shenanigans, bad guys and all. You'll want to find a zero-gravity dance hall right after the movie; Spielbergean sentiment will have you do it with your best love, not some virtual fantasy.
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L'insulte (2017)
A rightful Oscar nominee full of ethnicity and humanity.
26 March 2018
"I wish Ariel Sharon wiped you all out" Tony (Adel Karam)

Tony, a Lebanese Christian, shouts this insult at Yassar, a Palestinian refugee, that, together with the epithets Yassar had called to him, prompts a court proceeding in diverse Beirut, creating a national interest and hatred that would foment.

The half million Palestinians in Beirut and the multiple sects of Christians are not going to be appeased by any court decision that doesn't support their cause. Consequently writer/director Ziad Doueiri and writer Joelle Touma, both responsible for the stunning The Attack (2012), craft a heavily figurative and entertaining courtroom drama that clearly and forcefully lays out the history and contemporary contempt of Lebanese and Palestinians. The proceedings also emphasize the humanity that underlies the conflict.

The two principals are very different men: Tony is a garage mechanic and owner, a hothead with a big chip on his shoulder about Palestinian incursions (no mention here about the currently millions of Syrian refugees); Yassar is an engineer, seemingly even tempered, who heads a team of workers charged with fixing buildings that need to be up to code.

Both men have reasons to hate each other in circumstances that require a careful treatment by the justices. With the two men, there is no nuance or subtlety. With the court, empathy and rationality are required. Throughout, the filmmakers allow us to enjoy the legal jousting while gaining sympathy for both sides of the ethnic animus.

The dynamic Insult deserved every bit of its Oscar nomination for best foreign language film. While some might complain the treatment is simplistic and Tony too headstrong, it's still powerful cinematic drama and respectful of the differences that make wars.

"Insults are the arguments employed by those who are in the wrong." Jean-Jacques Rousseau
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Loveless (2017)
Beautifully Bleak!
25 March 2018
"I think I've made a terrible mistake." Zehyna (Maryana Spivak)

She may have had more than one mistake, but the one that propels the grief of Loveless is being a mother. Hence the title. Writer Director Andrey Zvyagintsev creates a dramatic story of such pathos and regret that it's no surprise when Maryana and Boris's 12 year old son disappears probably due to their egregious neglect and arguing about getting a divorce within his earshot.

Like the son, we'd leave that depressing situation except that the story leads us wanting to see if they find the son and if the search brings the couple back together. All this happens while the cinematography features the beautifully bleak Russian landscape and decaying buildings. The metaphor for their failed marriage has equal partnership with the chillingly lovely winter scape.

I don't know for sure, but Loveless not only captures a couple so detached from love of their partners and their child, it also comments on the separation of the Ukraine and the notoriously chilling Russian life divorced from the high-profile comfort of Vladimir Putin's oligarchy, where the commoners search for love that does not comfortably occupy their hearths.

Yet in the end this is not a story just about Russia; it is about all the fragmented, tortured relationships in the world that spawn children who have managed to get in the way of the solipsistic lifestyle contemporary millennials seem to desire. This film does not torture you with the lonely life of contemporary bourgeoisie; it rather suggests a fragmented future of self-centered couples, and I forgot to mention the motif of spouses on 24/7 with their smart phones. That is depressing.

Although it doesn't look good for us in the future, Loveless's nomination for Oscar's best foreign language film has an enviable artistic future. If you think of Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, Antonioni's L'Avventura, or Haneke's Hidden, you're right in Loveless territory. Not a bad convention, I think.
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A story of difficult love in a transgender package sure to make you see that love conquers all.
18 March 2018
If you feel uncomfortable or just out of it with the transgender topic, make sure to see the remarkable 2018 Oscar winner for best foreign language film, A Fantastic Woman, to be au currant and edified about a love story than transcends transgender. If you've come to expect a measured study of character and social norms from foreign films, then see this Chilean Oscar winner.

Marina (Daniela Vega) is a waitress and moonlighting singer in love with an older man, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), who dies suddenly. While everyone knows or immediately guesses that she used to be a he, the rejection she experiences, from police who want to treat her like a criminal to his family, who can't understand his eccentric love ("I don't know what you are," says Bruno, played by Nicolás Saavedra), we become quickly aware about the unique and authentic love that will be tested long after Orlando's death.

You may feel comfortable sensing the presence of Hitchcock and his Vertigo (writer director Sebastian Lelio must respect that director, and Pedro Almodovar, whose love of women in his films is legendary). Whatever, A Fantastic Woman has the trappings of world cinema that explores identity and society in unusual ways.

Vega is a transgender and singer in real life whose performance is among the best of 2017. She is responsible for your feeling comfortable about transgender and for seeing this as a strong statement about people who are different in society, people who violate the marriage vows for love, and the need for understanding and sympathy for those about whom we know so little.

Although Marina's treatment by Orlando's family occupies the central conflict, the soundtrack with multiple classical pieces elevates the crassness to operatic stature; the aria from Giacomelli's Sposa son speaks clearly of the abused wife in possibly the most blatant statement of support for Marina. Otherwise, the film lets you draw your own conclusion.

A Fantastic Woman lets you gently into transgender challenges without ever preaching to you. It is about love, fantastic or otherwise, at home in a great film.
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Us and Them (2017)
Entertainingly violent and smart satire of class struggle.
17 March 2018
"It's called class war for a reason," says Danny (Jack Roth). "There has to be victims on both sides."

Us and Them represents that class warfare with a mixture of Straw Dogs and Tarantino. You're right; it's a bloody business with Danny and his two working-class goons invading a Brit upper-class home to seek redress for the social injustices of the 1% taking from the blue-class stiffs for the upper crust's advantage.

But there's also ample humor in the invaders stumbling over themselves, Marx Bros. and Marx style, to pull off a mostly ill-conceived invasion (a BB gun??). Heading this gang that can't shoot straight is Roth's superb performance as the tough but conflicted Danny. It's an amusing and sardonic and poignant satire.

Given he's Tim Roth's son, not only can we expect a performance so gritty as to immediately reveal he has no acting school to weigh him down. (Also, he reminds me of the versatile Jack Plotnick, whose talents extend from acting to writing and directing as well.)

Besides Roth's presence are the stylized set-ups and performances perfected by Guy Ritchie and the sardonic asides of Quentin Tarantino's rough-hewn tough guys. Kudos to writer/director Joe Martin for catching Brit blue collar frustrations and the unfathomable gulf between the wealthy and the rest of the world's blokes.

Although Us and Them plays to the global divide between the haves and the have-nots, it goes much deeper to satirize the dangers of narrow extremism on either side of that divide.
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Tomb Raider (2018)
Great as a video game. Film not so much.
15 March 2018
"All myths are foundations of reality." Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West)

The reality of the Lara Croft Tomb Raider franchise is that it is mediocre storytelling born of video gaming, whose heroine is a bright, resourceful young woman. Passing from Angelina Jolie is easy because Alicia Vikander, not as beautiful, is happily a serious intellectual with a curious mind and a healthy body that doesn't dominate the screen.

In searching for her lost father, Richard, who had been searching for the tomb, this Lara is in the modern tradition of heroines searching for a parent (e.g., Logan, Wrinkle in Time). She also has the Indiana Jones Raiders of the Lost Ark archaeological bug taking her to the strange Japanese island, Yamatai that allows us to be drawn into a search for a mystical tomb of Japanese Queen of Death, Himiko.

Lara is mostly serious, a salutary state given the sardonic talk of many characters in super hero films these days. However, she is no super hero, just a very athletic young woman whose prowess with her hands and feet is firmly established in the first sequence and played out in numerous set pieces. Yet she's frequently beaten up and hardly invulnerable. The film has too-long a setup for her feistiness and her sadness at the seven-year absence of her father (see Wrinkle in Time for the consequences of leaving your child for a greater cause).

After her jumping and wrestling, the film has nothing new to add to the lore of tomb raiding so well exemplified by Harrison Ford and Brendan Fraser. It's possible, however, that young viewers will enjoy the low-key characters in heavy CGI without demanding even more video-game non-sequiturs.
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Not always accurate, but a powerfully told story of a notorious hijacking.
13 March 2018
If you want to feel the tension between Israel and Palestine in an old context, 1976, but a contemporary resonance, then see 7 Days in Entebbe, a well-told fictionalized docudrama about the hijacking of an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris by The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Germans sympathetic to the cause. Director Jose Padilla puts you realistically in the crowded Ugandan terminal and on the tarmac with pirates and soldiers and a crazed Idi Amin (Nonso Anozle) for grim color.

Although this story is a combination of history and fiction, the sense is that writer Gregory Burke got it right. Join Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi) as he spars with defense minister Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan) about the right strategy for saving the hostages. The film does well translating the agonizing decisions, against a backdrop of limited time and a time-honored Israeli tradition not to negotiate with terrorists. Never is it easy, and the decision will be fraught with contradictions.

The rescue by the commandoes in the Israeli Defense Force is told here with chilling clarity that defines the brave troops saving more than a hundred civilians. As the director cuts between the Israeli war room and the hostage situation, he lets us witness the tension between lead hijackers: sympathetic German, Boni (Daniel Bruhl); and hardcore revolutionary Brigitte (Rosamund Pike).

Although in real life their arc may not have moved so easily to resisting killing hostages, here the film nudges them into humanism without letting the audience forget they are still revolutionaries and the circumstances toxic. 7 Days in Entebbe is a way of experiencing terrorism and territoriality up close and personal.
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Thoroughbreds (2017)
Two bad girls do what bad girls do--dream of murder. Darkly comic neo-noir.
13 March 2018
Warning: Spoilers
"Good breeding consists in concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of the other person." Mark Twain

Two slick chicks from upper-class Connecticut, renewing a friendship, plan to murder an obnoxious step dad. Not that he doesn't deserve to be out of the picture because of his abusive attitude, mental more than anything else. It's just that he doesn't deserve to die; rather he needs mom to divorce him or some such. However, these girls are strange, Amanda (Olivia Cooke) talking like a robot with no affect because of a considerable drama with her horse and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), wide-eyed receptive to Amanda's amorality and suggestion for dad Mark's (Paul Sparks) permanent removal. Both speak with a distant emotion to be almost other worldly. Neither is stable. First-time director Corey Finley firmly keeps the tone and motifs in the lite-horror mode as the young off-center ladies plot the complicated process of murder. Meanwhile we are amused by a horse motif as Amanda describes the death of her beloved Honeymooner at her own hands. Shades of Equus not National Velvet. The tone is hard-boiled neo-noir, Twilight Zone and Strangers on a Train with a side of Double Indemnity, a form of strange naughtiness. To help us stay real, the writer/director introduces small time hood, Tim , played by the late Anton Yelchin with the right cluelessness of a minor drug dealer who's done time. Like the girls, he lives in an altered world, born of prison, and they of wealth that allows them to offer him $100K to murder step dad. Thoroughbreds is a juicy dark comedy that not only keeps the audience guessing about the girls' whopper idea but also keeps it amused by their removal from reality. In reality, this is a case of "good breeding gone bad," for horse and girls alike. Yes, murder is real enough.
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The Party (I) (2017)
Let's Party! A truly fine dramatic, humorous, and satriical film experience.
11 March 2018
"The beautiful Marianne, queen of spin and that ridiculously handsome husband of hers. Too bad he's a banker with a mysterious ability to make millions out of other's misfortune." April (Patricia Clarkson)

The Party is about a Brit liberal party where the players have ambivalent roles like the beautiful Marianne who has disabled a marriage or two with her infidelity and her husband, Tom (Cillian Murphy), who, as the establishment capitalist, is not the hero of any of these proceedings. This film is a Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf in its intellectual badinage but not like it in its darkly humorous take on everything Brit from the healthcare system to its personal politics.

The dialogue is smart, e.g., "April, really. I am a professor. Specializing in domestic labour gender differentiation in American utopianism." (Martha, played by Cherry Jones)The editing allows the audience to enjoy the actors' personal genius with close-ups you couldn't get in the theater between goodness and evil and the screwball comedies half a century or more before.

The Party is a smart dark comedy, which is neither too dark nor too comedic. It occupies a ground where dialogue, character, and reversal compete with each other to keep the proceedings taut and suspenseful while satirizing the weaknesses of contemporary society. Whether politician Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) can hold onto her recent ministerial promotion is a running motif and appropriate for any time. Writer/director Sally Potter, as she did in Orlando and The Tango Lesson, keeps it all amusing, enlightening, and contemporary (despite even a span of centuries in Orlando).

Nobody at the party is safe. Janet's professorial husband, Bill (Timothy Spall), has suffered the neglect of a politician's prominent spouse: "Look, if Dennis Thatcher and Prince Philip could trail behind their female leaders without complaint, then so can Bill" (April).

Although the major conflict of the drama rests in that description of Bill's dilemma, the screenplay and top actors make it universal to apply for all of us. Sympathy and humor apply in a most satisfactory experience.
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