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A haunting film that lingers in the mind
12 January 2020
Celine Sciamma's delicately rendered tale of the attraction between a Painter and her subject is a slow burn, but, it ignites nonetheless. Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is commissioned by a Comtesse (the always luminous Valeria Golino) to paint a portrait of her puzzling daughter Héloïse (Adele Haenel), but, there is an obstacle -- Héloïse won't pose. Marianne must act as a guest who simply observes her elusive subject by day, and paint at night. Soon the 'observations' become an attraction as Marianne studies not only Héloïse's physical features, but, her manners and bearing. Sciamma (who also wrote the screenplay) takes her time. The pas de deux of the two women is allowed to develop even while there is a supposed deadline to complete the secret painting. It's an exquisite balance abetted by Cinematographer Claire Mathon. Together, Sciamma and her camerawoman create a lovely mood. The framing, lighting and positioning of the actresses can justifiably be termed 'painterly', but, it rarely comes off as self-consciously so. There is no musical score but the two pieces of music (one composed for the film by Para One, the other, Vivaldi's Four Seasons) are essential to the structure of the movie. Still, by having the vast majority of the run-time sans any background score, it forces the viewer to remain intimately involved with women on screen, with even the long patches of utter silence drawing one it. As artfully produced as the movie is, it falls upon the lead actresses to carry it off (the only other significant character is a Maid (Luana Barjami). Merlant and Haenel do so, touchingly. Haenel has shown her talents in such pictures as B.P.M. and the Dardennes' UNKNOWN GIRL, but Merlant is just as fine here in a trickier role. PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE is a beautifully wrought chamber piece which lingers in the mind. Like it's enigmatic title, it's a movie that haunts.
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A Hidden Life (2019)
A deeply felt movie; Cinematic Poetry
7 January 2020
A HIDDEN LIFE is a return to form for Director Terrence Malick - a wondrous and deeply moving one. After films such as KNIGHT OF CUPS and TO THE WONDER, even Malick's most devoted admirers started to feel that his style had gotten style. After his twenty year hiatus from the Directing chair after DAYS OF HEAVEN in 1978, returned with THE THIN RED LINE. A tone poem told largely through images and narration. He continued that new way of filmmaking with A NEW WORLD, reaching his highest acclaim with 2011's TREE OF LIFE.

With A HIDDEN LIFE, Malick continues in a similar vein, but, with a renewed emphasis on narrative to tie the imagery together. The movie is based on the true story of an Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) who refused to pledge allegiance to Hitler and Germany during WWII. Franz had been a soldier for Austria, even so, he refused to avow loyalty to the Nazi regime. Franz's wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) and two young children bear the brunt of the village's citizens who have chosen to go along to get along. Franz is given several opportunities to avoid the consequences of refusing to fight by giving an even half-hearted oath to Hitler, but, he stands on principle above all else. But, pure plot isn't what Malick is after. There is, maybe, about an hour's worth of dialogue over the movie's three hour length. Along with Cinematographer Jorg Widmer and Composer James Newman Howard (augmented with many classical pieces), Malick is striving for something much deeper. Widmer's use of wide lenses allows for the camera to be both intimate as well as giving the viewer a view of the mountainous landscape of the Austrian countryside. Using digital photography exclusively for the first time, Malick was able to have the camera run for long periods in order to allow Diehl and the cast to improvise and inhabit their roles and surroundings.

Malick's aesthetic is certainly not for the masses, but, here it works gorgeously. The cumulative effect is a sense of lives that were actually lived - not just scripted. There is a spiritual feel to the movie that goes beyond the mere religious*, into something more profound.

Malick's work has been compared to that of the great Russian Director Andrei Tarkovsky. They are two of the finest Cinema Poets. A HIDDEN LIFE is a superb testament to Malick's art.

* - Franz Jägerstätter has been Beatified and made into a Martyr of the Catholic Church.

P.S. the great European actor Bruno Ganz has a small but important role as a Judge. This was to be his penultimate film.
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One Last Look At My Friends
5 January 2020
The Dead Speak! the opening crawl proclaims. And, do they ever. Not only Emperor Palpatine, but just about every beloved character in the Star Wars canon makes some appearance or is referenced in one way or another (I said 'beloved', so no Jar Jar Binks that I could spot!). In one case, Carrie Fisher's, the 'resurrection' is literal, and somewhat creepy, in using extant footage (along with CGI and body doubles) to rope Princess Leia into the proceedings.

Still, the most important re-appearance here is George Lucas. While the father of the Star Wars universe wasn't apparently intimately involved with TROS, he was 'consulted'. Simply put, JJ Abrams and writer Chris Terrio are more in tune with Lucas' vision than Rian Johnson and THE LAST JEDI team were. That, of course, is a double-edged sword for LAST JEDI split the Star Wars fan-verse almost as deeply as Lucas' Prequels did.

What works in TROS are the same things that have always worked in Star Wars - heroic acts, derring do action, great special effects...and John Williams' music. What doesn't work here is the storytelling. A jumble of half-baked ideas, simplistic plots that nevertheless confuse, and a general lack of firm purpose outside of wrapping the damn thing up. In the end, Abrams, Terrio and "Disney" settle on fan service above all else.

Daisy Ridley has developed into a decent actress, even if she gets to mostly just look 'determined'. Adam Driver is more animated than usual, and his role has the closest thing to an arc here. The other main actors do their best with their compressed parts here, although Kelli Marie Tran's Rose is given noticeable short shrift. Ian McDiarmid chews the scenery as Palpatine. The main notable newcomer is the always valuable Richard E. Grant. But, it is Billy Dee Williams in a larger role than expected that is a pleasant surprise (even if his performance isn't vigorous).

With a trilogy that has had many hands involved, it's no surprise that TROS hasn't a firmer direction, so when in doubt, it reverts to the past. If THE FORCE AWAKENS patterned itself on A NEW HOPE (aka STAR WARS (1977)), then TROS conspicuously takes its blueprint from RETURN OF THE JEDI (with a pinch of EMPIRE STRIKES BACK). Many ideas and concepts introduced in FORCE and LAST are either largely ignored if not downright contradicted.

All that seemed to matter here is that the majority of the fan base is appeased. And, speaking as one who saw A NEW HOPE the very first weekend it opened wide in 1977 -- it does on a basic level. Great filmmaking it is not, but, like REVENGE OF THE SITH it rises to the occasion, if barely. Neither of the two latest Trilogies is up to the level of the original, but, SITH and now TROS are, respectively, the most satisfying on a primal basis. Hearing John Willams' exit music, my eyes were a bit misty. Not because I had seen a great film, but, as C3PO (Anthony Daniels) says at one point: "Taking one last look, sir. At my friends."
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Clemency (2019)
Alfre Woodward is very good, but the movie never makes it's case
2 January 2020
Warning: Spoilers
CLEMENCY

One would think that a movie which begins with an execution of a convicted murder would be able to grab the viewer from the get go. Unfortunately, Writer-Director Chinonye Chukwu's CLEMENCY never makes a compelling argument.

The fine Alfre Woodard plays the Prison Warden who oversees the capital punishment. Fresh off its heels she is awaiting the impending decision for Clemency for another prisoner on Death Row (Aldis Hodge, very good). Wendell Pierce (ditto) plays the Warden's long-suffering husband. While any movie about the Death Penalty is sure to evoke some sort of reaction (it is about Life or Death, after all), CLEMENCY fumbles its case. The script is dry and more than a bit pat and the characters are underwritten to the point of disinterest despite the crucial consequences at stake. The cast rises above the material with several small gems, none more so than Danielle Brooks as the accussed's ex.

The final scene is played out virtually entirely in close-up on Alfre Woodard's face. It is an exquisite bit of dialogue free acting. If only the rest of CLEMENCY were up to that level.
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Charming Doc about a family farm
1 January 2020
THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM (2019). Shortlisted for the Documentary Academy Award. John Chester's Doc about how he and his wife Molly realized their dream of taking a dying farm and revitalize it by being as close to nature as possible is a charming journey. The trials and tribulations are fairly well laid out, even if the fact that the participants themselves are making the movie doesn't allow for much objectivity. To be fair, the couple give credit to their mentor Alan York who devised much of the farm's planning. The Chesters also allow for some honest depictions of their flaws, even if it never cuts too deeply. Also, the enormous amount of money that went into this eight year enterprise is never fully dealt with (as the movie begins the couple are living in a tiny apartment and don't have large incomes). Mystery friends and "investors" are never fully ID'd. John Chester's background as a cinematographer helps yield some terrific views from the macro of the entire spread, to the intimate flapping of an insect's wings. The couple themselves are photogenic and well spoken (and York even more so). John narrates the movie and has a certain folksy charm, although he goes overboard towards the end. The last ten minutes in particular seem like padding, in order to get the Doc over the 90 minute mark. THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM isn't an essential piece of Documentary filmmaking, but, it's an earnest and enjoyable journey. If nothing else, it should remind us of how our fresh food comes from.
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Just another Woody Allen movie, despite the controversy
31 December 2019
I wish Woody Allen's "banned" movie A RAINY DAY IN NEW YORK was worth trumpeting as a film to be sought out like some forbidden fruit. Alas, it's yet another of Woody's not bad, yet not quite good mediocrities that have littered his filmography for the last couple of decades. Here we have Timothy Chalomet as a college student in upstate New York who travels to his native Manhattan ostensibly to squire his pretty coed girlfriend (Elle Fanning) around town while she is on assignment from the college newspaper to interview a famed arthouse film Director (Liev Schreiber). Along the way, they become separated. Chalomet ends up meeting up with the younger sis of his old girlfriend (Selena Gomez) and his mom (Cherry Jones). Fanning not only interviews the Director, but, has tete a tetes with his screenwriter (Jude Law) and a hot to trot actor (Diego Luna). And, it rains. RAINY DAY is another of Woody's screenplays that seems lost in time. Take out the cellphones, and the movie could just as well have been set in the 1970s. The movie opens with Chalomet's character's narration that forces the young actor to come off like a parody of Allen's early mensch persona - he loves Jazz, literature (he's even named Gatsby!) and, of course, all thing old NYC. The female characters are all ditzes, call girls or wanting babes in short skirts who pant for older more 'learned' men. Allen confronts his peccadillos head on. Here you have not one, not two, not three, but FOUR 'wise' men who are after the young blonde girl. Three of the four could easily be interpreted as stand-ins for Woody himself (the exception, I suppose, is Luna). A babe so innocent looking that she has to, literally (!), whip out her ID card to prove that she's 21. Fanning does her best, but, despite protestations that she's "really smart" - she comes off like a bubble-head. On one hand, I guess you have to give Allen credit for not giving in to the #MeToo movement and continue to explore his obsessions on screen. Unfortunately, he has nothing new or interesting to say. It's just "another Woody Allen movie". And, that's the real irony here. Amazon got cold feet and have done their best to bury the picture. Truth is, the 'controversy' is the most interesting thing about it. If it had been released in the normal fashion, it would have disappeared quickly in the ether -- just like most other Woody Allen films these days.
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Uncut Gems (2019)
NOT an Adam Sandler movie -- a Safdie Brothers FILM
23 December 2019
Warning: Spoilers
UNCUT GEMS (2019). First things first. This is not an "Adam Sandler movie". Yes, he is the star and the focus of the advertising, but, this is very much a "Safdie Brothers film". Emphasis on "film". Benny and Josh Safdie are very much in love with the look and feel of the films of the 70s and 80s, in particular. But, as with GOOD TIME, they are not interested in doing a cutesy wink-wink homage. It's in their bones. Sandler plays Howard, New York city jeweler who's also a full-time hustler. His marriage to Dinah (Idina Menzel) is falling apart, his gambling debts are piling up and he is facing health issues. He banks his future on an Ethiopian rock which houses the title valuables. Also involved are a two-bit floozy he's carrying on with (Julia Fox) and Boston Celtics legend Kevin Garnett - playing himself. From the get-go, the Safdie Brothers (who also co-wrote with Ronald Bonstein) bring enormous energy and drive to the proceedings. Sandler starts at 11 and goes from there. Similarly, Daniel Lopatin's score is often mixed so high it becomes intrusive at times (the synth music itself isn't bad, sort of a retro blend of Vangelis and Jean-Michel Jarre). Darius Khondij's 35mm photography is both slick and gritty. Director Yorgos Lanthimos (THE FAVOURITE) has remarked that UNCUT GEMS is like "a Robert Altman film that was dipped in acid." Altman's 1974 CALIFORNIA SPLIT certainly fits the time period and some of the themes. Of course, Altman was an original and as many of his admirers have found out over the years, overlapping dialogue and naturalistic atmosphere do not alone make an "Altman film" (Altman himself often enough failed to create the unique mood). UNCUT GEMS works because of the filmmaking brio and Sandler's driven performance. Still, at times, it seems to be trying too hard. It works best in the last act when the Safdies let the drama play out more. It's a good film, even if not quite up to GOOD TIME. But, hey, Celtics fans now know how Boston beat Philadelphia in that 2012 Playoff series!
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63 Up (2019 TV Movie)
Another visit with 'old friends'
21 December 2019
63 UP (Michael Apted, 2019). In limited release.

The world's greatest ever cinema experiment enters with it's latest installment - 56+ years in the making. At this point, the films are far removed from being stand-alone projects.One must have seen a few of the previous episodes (spaced 7 years apart since 1964) in order to fully appreciate the marvelous work Michael Apted and his team have achieved. And, now, as the group (originally 14 children) have broached the 60 year threshold, the mortality factor has certainly become the overwhelming obstacle to the series continuing. The first of the 14 has already passed on, another is very ill, and two more participants declined being interviewed (one for the very first time; the second (Charles) left in the late-70s/early 80s). Still, as melancholy a Doc as 63 UP is, it's still a fine piece of work. I began watching the series with 1984's 28 UP, and haven't missed one since (I've also caught up with 2 of the 3 other entries recently). So, to see the remaining eleven men and women is like catching up with old friends. American viewers are used to 'reality show' celebrities now, but, keep in mind, this group have been major celebrities in England for much of the past five decades. Tony, the ex-cabbie even relates a story of a passenger asking for his autograph when they were all in the company of Buzz Aldrin - the 2nd man to walk on the moon! Filmmaker Michael Apted (COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER, WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH) is now 78. Apted was a researcher on the original film (now dubbed 7 UP), and has directed all the subsequent films (he told me he had a contingency plan in place in case he wasn't able to finish future episodes). See you in seven years. On to 70 UP
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Hanks captures Mr. Rogers well, problematic script
30 November 2019
Two questions came to mind when it was announced that Tom Hanks had been cast as Mister Rogers in the wake of the excellent 2018 Morgan Neville documentary WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?: 1. Was the beloved Hanks too perfect, too on the nose a choice to play the part of the beloved kid's TV host? 2. Was a scripted version of Rogers needed so soon? To those questions, it's fair to answer: A definite yes and a much more qualified maybe.

Director Marielle Heller (CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?) starts well by firmly placing viewer in Mr Rogers' neighborhood. We see Mr. Rogers (Hanks) slowly pull on his iconic sweater and shoes. The miniature Mr. Rogers Neighborhood is lovingly recreated. Ms. Heller respects the original TV aspect ratio of the era (putting her in good graces with this viewer).

Co-writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster adapted Tom Junod's magazine article about the journalist's relationship with the television host. Here, the journo has been renamed Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys). He has a wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) and baby. He also is shown to have a bitter relationship with is estranged Dad (Chris Cooper). It's 1998 and the hard-bitten reporter is given what is supposed to be a puff piece by his editor (Christine Lahti). Lloyd snorts at the assignment but is ordered to do it anyway - even if it means uncovering Mr. Rogers' dark-side. Of course, it turns out Fred Rogers is....well, Mr. Rogers. Much is made about how Mr. Rogers likes to take on folks with a chip on their shoulder, so Lloyd makes the perfect foil.

A BEAUTIFUL IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD? could just as well have been entitled, MR. VOGEL MEETS MR. ROGERS. It's really Vogel's story. When filmmakers create stories about famous people told through the eyes of a common person (think JULIE & JULIA, ME AND ORSON WELLES, MY WEEK WITH MARILYN etc) the key is to create characters interesting enough so that the audience doesn't just say: Hey, let's have more screen-time with the famous person we came to watch! It also helps if said commoner is interesting or sympathetic enough for us to care about them. This is where NEIGHBORHOOD gets problematic. Lloyd Vogel may be based on Tom Junod, and the very basic outline is correct, but the details are mostly screenwriter hooey. There was no dysfunctional father relationship. Junod wasn't so 'broken' that he needed 'fixing'. It's a sop to easy mawkish sentimentality. It's also fundamentally dishonest and evasive -- precisely, the opposite attributes which makes Fred Rogers such a heroic figure to this day. Changing the name is no excuse.

Still, NEIGHBORHOOD works to an extent. Hanks is one of the most endearing actors of his era, and that charm and seeming lack of guile simply works as Rogers. Hanks isn't just a mimicking the well known ticks and mannerisms, but, imbuing the essence of the man. He fills the screen with joy whenever he is on screen. While the screenplay has serious issues with credibility, the writers and Director Heller frame the story well. The Mister Rogers Neighborhood miniature set is used to illustrate the transitions between sequences. And, there's a funhouse mirror aspect reminiscent of several Twilight Zone episodes (particularly "A World of Difference") where Vogel becomes part of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood itself. Parts of it come off as creepy - but, hey, we know Mr. Rogers will make it all right in the end. Hanks and Heller create a nice atmosphere and pay tribute to Fred Rogers, the man. Too bad the writers felt that they had to impose a trite metaphor as a short-cut to telling a genuinely honest tale, befitting of the man himself.
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Waves (I) (2019)
Ambitious movie about moments in time (and emotion)
23 November 2019
The title could translate here as moments in time, or, more specifically - waves in motion. Writer Director Trey Shults' third feature (KRISHA, IT COMES AT NIGHT) is an ambitious attempt at tackling a family tragedy through a fragmented lens. A brother Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr) and sister Emily (Taylor Harrison) are each given their own 'half' of the movie. Their tales include their parents (Sterling K. Brown and Renee Elise Goldsberry; both very fine) and their respective girlfriend (Alexie Demie and Lucas Hedges), but its not a strictly plot driven movie. Some of the scenes are as brief as a handful of seconds. Others play out in a more full and natural manner. Drew Daniels' camera bobs and weaves and captures a moment here, a glimpse there. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' pulsating score drives much of the momentum of the movie (along with a large selection of song cues). Isaac Hagy's editing (with Shults) is both restless and relentless - sometimes concurrently. The screenplay works in fits and starts. The situations and dialogue can be stock, but, its more a movie about those moments in time than strict chronology. The movie uses its length to coordinate the two halves with some interesting parallels in both style and content. Shults' determination isn't always matched by cohesion, but, WAVES is a worthy experiment.
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Very well Produced and acted. Enjoyable, but, script issues
22 November 2019
FORD V FERRARI

The battle between Ford and Ferrari has not gone down as one of the previous century's most important or serious, but, it does provide a nice backdrop for this entertaining drama. FORD V FERRARI focuses on Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) a one-time Le Mans champion race car driver (1959) who was forced into retirement. He helps design new vehicles including hot-headed journeyman driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale). When the Ford motor company contacts Shelby in 1964 with the idea of helping them design a car that can beat the vaunted Ferrari line of winners at Le Mans and it's charismatic owner Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone). Shelby enlists Miles and his band of mechanics and friends to take on the task. Of course, working for the huge Ford corporation means also dealing with corporate interference. Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) is portrayed as the benign intermediary between Shelby and The Man -- Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts). VP Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) is the 'heavy' -- the kiss ass in the company who only looks out for himself. The company politics angle could have been interesting, but Ford and, especially, Beebe are cartoonish villains. Letts and Lucas do the best they can, but, just come off as buffoons more appropriate for a sit-com than the big screen. Fortunately, when the action sticks to the racetrack, the movie mostly hums. Francois Audouy's Production Design is sharp and captured well by Phedon Papamichael's cinematography (although, like with NEBRASKA one wishes he'd tone down the digital 'grain'). It's a well-done physical and aural (David Giammarco's sound design is aces) production all around. The large cast acquits itself well. Damon is very effective as the driven but level-headed Shelby. Bale gets the showier role and relishes it. Caitriona Balfe brings some perk to the stock role of Miles' patient wife. James Mangold Directs with a sure hand. His insistence on accuracy (for the most part) and actual vehicles and locations rather than a surfeit of CGI gives the movie some grit and verve that helps make up for the 'sports film' cliches which hamper the screenplay (three writers). Mangold is a pretty strong writer himself (LOGAN, COP LAND), so it's unfortunate he apparently didn't have much input there. The epilogue is surprisingly melancholy and lifts the movie from the standard -- Rah! Rah! straight to the credits finale -- most sports films settle for. The maturity only highlights how lite much of the rest of the movie is. FORD V FERRARI is the kind of A List big budgeted drama that is rarely seen any more. It's enjoyable, but, a mediocre script keeps it from finishing higher.
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Very well performed, but the characters are ill-defined
9 November 2019
Warning: Spoilers
It's no secret that behind the benign title, Noah Baumbach's newest is really a 'Divorce Story' (I suppose it makes it more marketable and palatable on a marquee). After a somewhat rosy prologue we truly meet our New York City couple: Nicole (Scarlet Johannson), a 30 something Actress who started out in Hollywood. Charlie (Adam Driver), a 30 something theater Director who uses Nicole as his muse. They are in a therapy session trying to avert a Divorce, but, it's clear from the outset that it's inevitable.

From that start point, the film (shot on 35mm) progresses on pretty much a steady plain - Arguments. Accusations. The woman moving out (back to L.A.). The hiring of Divorce attorneys. The attorneys argue. Etc. etc. Also, another predictable element: The cute kid (Henry played by Azhy Robertson) caught in the tug of war in between. Is "Henry" a nod to KRAMER VS. KRAMER's Justin Henry? (there's also a not so subtle nod to Ingmar Bergman's SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE tucked in) What keeps the film flowing is the fine performances of Johannson and Driver. I've usually found Driver to be too diffident to be really effective, but, here, he delivers his strongest acting yet. Johansson has always been appealing, and is more than fine here. The Supporting cast is also fine including Laura Dern, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta as the trio of lawyers involved in the case, Merrit Wever as Nicole's sister, and a pleasant surprise in seeing Julie Hagerty as her mom (didn't even recognize her as it's been years since I've seen her in anything even if she has been semi-active).

Still, as effective as the ensemble is, and as punchy a script as Baumbach has written can be at times, the film's arc comes off as a bit flat. Other than flashbacks, we never get to really see the true dynamics of the marriage. The pair too often come off as self-absorbed narcissists (not uncommon in Baumbach's writing). They say they are mismatched, but are they really? It wouldn't be a stretch to think that some viewers will say that they 'deserve each other'. The principle argument seems to be over whether they should base in L.A. or New York, rather than something catastrophically wrong in their relationship.

Now, it's also no secret that Baumbach has based his screenplay partly on his own divorce from Actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. That very public split also involved Baumbach's affair (and now full relationship) with actress Greta Gerwig (there's even a nod to her Directing nomination). But, MARRIAGE STORY softens that critical detail, and that's unfortunate. Not because a filmmaker should air their dirty laundry on screen*, but, because with that crucial event (or something akin), the story seems not only incomplete but it also makes the couple seem even more selfish. To substitute, Baumbach has included a knock down drag out argument between the pair where they vent and vent and vent. Like much of the movie, it's well acted, but, still has a certain hollowness at its core.

MARRIAGE STORY is a rare adult film in a sea of lite entertainment. The acting is extremely good, and worth seeing for it. But, they are let down by the less than candid characters.

* See Woody Allen's HUSBANDS AND WIVES for a more honest take
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Jojo Rabbit (2019)
A Boy and his Fake Fuhrer
1 November 2019
Films have parodied the Nazis even while WWII raged, including everyone from Chaplin to The Three Stooges to Mel Brooks. Enter Taiki Waititi seemingly channeling Wes Anderson in JOJO RABBIT. Waititi turns up the trademark Anderson Twee barometer to 11 right from the outset. A ten year old Hitler Youth to be named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) has an imaginary friend. And, he's not just your typical fanciful pal, but Hitler himself (Waititi). The Fake Fuhrer has a goofy grin and prances about like a reject from a Dresden burlesque show. The effect is like an even sillier Hogan's Heroes for a while. Fortunately, things settle down once a teenage Jewish girl in hiding is introduced - Elsa, played by the terrific young actress Thomasin McKenzie (LEAVE NO TRACE). Elsa becomes the heart and soul of the movie and keeps it grounded. Jojo's mom (Scarlett Johansson) also brings some gravitas to the story despite also being a bit of a caricature at the outset. Jojo and Elsa strike up a guarded friendship of sorts despite being on 'opposite' sides - and, of course, the constant pestering of Fake Fuhrer (not to mention the intrusions of the Gestapo represented here by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) and Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson). Rockwell and Wilson are out-sized cartoon villains who also seemingly have studied every frame of Wes Anderson's guide to broad acting. Archie Yates is genuinely affecting as Jojo's hapless friend Yorki. JOJO RABBIT, despite far too many arch attempts at humor, eventually does get it points across. The music choices (often intentionally anachronistic) usually work (particularly for the touching coda), and Mihai Malaimare Jr.'s cinematography has some exceptional compositions. The Elsa/Jojo relationship garners some genuine moments of pathos and warmth (something Anderson rarely achieves). Waititi obviously means well, but, he is is own worst enemy as he himself turns in the most grating performance of all as Fake Fuhrer and wrote the screenplay (based on a novel). Every time McKenzie and Davis do their best to elevate the uneven storyline, Fake Fuhrer interrupts the flow and the mood. It is no exaggeration to say that the movie would be vastly improved with excision of the character entirely. At the very least, Waititi fails to give the gimmick a real reason to be. The irony is too mild, the arc so narrow that the character becomes virtually meaningless. JOJO RABBIT is affecting on a certain level, but for a movie that bills itself as "An Anti-Hate Satire" it's pretty weak tea. Making a movie with Hitler as a sidekick will offend some just on it's face, so you may as well bring something much more cutting to justify it, but Waititi is more content with playing nice. For a parable about a youth in Germany during this period with teeth, seek out Volker Schlöndorff's masterful THE TIN DRUM (based on Gunter Grass' novel). JOJO is more akin to Roberto Bengini's benign if also affecting LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL.
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Parasite (2019)
A wild tasty class satire by Bong Joon-Ho
23 October 2019
There are many wealthy people who have taken short cuts -- legal or not -- to get their place in society. The Kim family in Seoul is of the underclass, but, they see no issue adopting the 'ethics' of some of the very wealthy to claim a piece for themselves. The Kims are living in a below street level hovel barely scraping by, but they aren't without certain wits and skills. An opportunity falls in their lap when their son Ki-Woo (Woo-sik Choi) finds himself tutoring a sweet teen daughter (Jung Ziso) or a successful tech entrepreneur Park Dong-Ik (Sun-kyun Lee) and his lovely if simple wife Yeon-Kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo). Before long the Kims all but move into the Parks' spacious architectural marvel of a home (each couple has a male and a female child). Director Bong Joon-Ho who also co-wrote the screenplay (with Jin Won Han) takes his time to set up the story. As seen in his previous work such as OKJA, SNOWPIERCER, THE HOST and MOTHER, Bong isn't the most formal filmmaker working today. His movies often seem wildly inconsistent in style and tone. Seeming leaps in logic and form abound. But, what makes his work so consistently invigorating and exciting is that if one looks past the seeming chaotic structure, Bong plays fair with the viewer. The extended set-ups are a means to an end. There is a 'Bong Playbook' that he is setting up and he abides by those rules. PARASITE is an exemplary case of the Bong Playbook. Once the dominoes fall the scabrous satire can cut deeply. Class warfare isn't an original concept in and of itself, but Bong continually upends expectations and circumstances here. Making it all the more interesting is that he doesn't set up the rich Park family as cartoon villains. Heck, they are so banal that one feels more sympathy for them. You shouldn't want them to get their lives disrupted -- but, you also can't help but cheer on the disruptors (the Kims). Bong takes PARASITE to some dark places and quite visceral places. There's some razor sharp allusions to the works of the great Luis Bunuel (DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID, VIRIDIANA), Chabrol's (CEREMONIE) as well as, most pointedly, Gorky's The Lower Depths, but, it still remains firmly the work of Bong Joon-Ho. Without a doubt, there are some allusions to provincial matters in South Korean society that will escape domestic viewers, but, Bong's scalpel cuts broadly and deeply enough for most international audiences (it won the Palme D'or at Cannes). It's a wild nasty ride. Take it.
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The Lighthouse (I) (2019)
Moody psychological thriller with standout acting
19 October 2019
Like his previous THE WITCH, Robert Eggers' THE LIGHTHOUSE is a period horror fantasy (here, the late 1800s). Again, dark forces lurk in the background while a battle of psychological wills grabs the foreground. The film stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. And, that's the full cast list (save for a few non-speaking roles). Dafoe is Thomas Wake, a grizzled lighthouse keeper on a remote island off of New England. Pattinson is Ephraim Winslow, a newcomer to the trade. The pair are sent to the island for a one month stay alone together before the next relief ship is to arrive. Eggers' script (with brother Max) is an atmospheric chamber piece. The pair locked together both physically and mentally. Alone on isle, they eat, drink (lots!), sing, dance and share stories. But, mostly, they bicker. As the boss, Wake enforces his will on the younger man, pushing him to and beyond his physical limits, while all the while jealously guarding control of the lighthouse beacon. It isn't long before the combination of physical and psychological tolls causes Winslow to see and hear horrific visions and manifestations. The never-ending crash of the sea, the squawk of seagulls and the whipping wind provide the agonizing soundtrack to his fragile mind (if only Eggers trusted the symphony of natural sounds and didn't overuse the loud Mark Korven score). The movie was shot on B&W 35mm film in a very rare and boxy 1:19 aspect ratio, hightening the claustrophobic feel. As with THE WITCH, Eggers' ending is a bit unsatisfying if consistent to the rest of the tale. The acting is what keeps the film tense even through some repetitive stretches (it could have make a fine creepy short story). Dafoe is commanding through and through, and Pattinson, for the most part, keeps up (even if his accent doesn't' always). THE LIGHTHOUSE is a dark finely acted mood piece, but one is left wishing it were a bit more.
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Joker (2019)
JOKER a dark bleak origin story with lots of 70s references
17 October 2019
Warning: Spoilers
JOKER

When Martin Scorsese's name got linked as a producer on this DC Comics spin-off movie, many people were flabbergasted. Scorsese? A Superhero flick?* In retrospect, once one sees the end result it makes a certain amount of sense. Much of JOKER plays like an alternate universe conglomeration of TAXI DRIVER and KING OF COMEDY (with healthy doses of MEAN STREETS and AFTER HOURS in the stew). Director and Co-Writer Todd Phillips and his partner Scott Silver cleverly weave in the origin story of the super-villain into this alternate reality.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a sad sack with psychological issues. So, of course, he's working as a for hire clown who spreads his anti-joy to those unfortunate to witness his services. Fleck lives with his ailing mother Penny (Frances Conroy). Fleck has dreams of becoming a stand up comedian, and , after a particularly awkward trial set, he ends up as a guest on a late night talk show hosted by none other than -- Rupert Pupkin himself, Robert DeNiro (as Murray Franklin). Also lurking around Fleck's purvueis a certain rich millionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) and his son, uh, Bruce (Dante Pereira-Olson).

At this point it must be stressed that JOKER's screenplay and direction use the form of the (highly) unreliable narrator in telling its tale. Sometimes, the deception is clear. At other times, not so much, to the point where one can't be certain. For the most part, it's a smart strategy. The movie succeeds in keeping the viewer off-balance even if one is fairly certain where its ultimately headed.

Phoenix has long been one of cinema's most quirky and unusual leading men. As if to prove his bona fides as an eccentric, he even once pulled a year long stunt where he 'quit' acting to become a full-time rapper. Here his unpredictability is keenly used to the movie's advantage. Phoenix contorts and bends his body, and curls his facial muscles almost as if it were against his will. It's a physical transformation so complete, that the Joker clown makeup is almost superfluous.

JOKER exerts it grungy attitude in an effective manner for the first two acts. It's a dark bleak vision where the DC origins are almost unnecessary. The streets are crime ridden and literally filled with piles of garbage. Other than the references to Gotham City and the Wayne family, it genuinely feels apart from the superhero machine. Unfortunately, Phillips and Silver have to not only shoe-horn in the comic book elements, but, in doing so they also become too confidant of their ability to give the movie false gravitas. Not content with paying homage to the Scorsese quartet, JOKER also weaves in DEATH WISH, and ultimately NETWORK (and not to the present movie's advantage). It feels force and Fleck/Joker's words begin to feel false and over-written (V FOR VENDETTA achieved similar conclusions much more smoothly and organically). The too on the nose song score also gets to be a bit much.

Despite the weak third act, JOKER is still a movie to be reckoned with. Missteps aside, it a jarring addition to mainstream blockbuster movie-making. Even if one isn't as seeped in the films of the 70s and early 80s** it's a daunting vision even it can't fully pull it off.



* In the end, it didn't happen, of course. The current 'official story' is that Scorsese was approached because the movie was to be set in NYC and it was thought his connections and production savvy could smooth the way for an easier shoot. He demurred in the end.

** Along with the titles mentioned, JOKER evokes such 70s crime films as THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1,2,3 and THE FRENCH CONNECTION. That's why it's a bit of surprise when it's revealed that it actually seems to take place in 1981 (references to the films WOLFEN and ZORRO THE GAY BLADE set the date).
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A lovely memoir by and mostly about Pedro Almodovar
11 October 2019
The movie begins with a slow pan up Antonio Banderas' body wading in a pool. A long scar is revealed bisecting his torso (the result of a real life heart surgery). It's one of many ways in which PAIN AND GLORY echoes the lives of both the actor and the movie's auteur, Pedro Almodovar. Banderas (a fine performance) plays Salvador, a disguised version of Almodovar himself. A world famous filmmaker with health issues who is looking back at his life and career. Penelope Cruz plays Salvador's mother in long flashbacks, while Julieta Serrano plays the same character in more present day flashbacks. The other major characters are an estranged actor from Salvador's earlier films, Crespo (Asier Etxeandia; exceptional) and another man from his deep past who stumbles back into his life (Federico, played, warmly, by Leonardo Sbaraglia).

PAIN AND GLORY is a memoir film in the tradition of Fellini's masterpiece, 8 1/2 where memory and fable intertwine in the hands of a master filmmaker. Almodovar and Banderas have made it clear that everything we see isn't strictly auto-biographical: Salvador isn't Almodovar, and Crespo isn't Banderas (although the pair went decades between working together, just like Crespo and Banderas; not to mention his mother/Serrano). Except, of course, when they ARE (there's a line about 'Salvador' being the only Spanish movie-maker who is internationally famed). Banderas actually wears Almodovar's clothes in many scenes, and they shot some of it at the Director's own flat.

The best way to approach the movie is to just let the whole wash over one's self. As a great storyteller, Almodovar has long had such a distinctive style and vision that many traditional narrative rules don't fully apply. The movie doesn't follow a strict story-line, but, it's never confusing. It's like a few select chapters from a (fictionalized) autobiography. Using his old collaborators Banderas and Cruz certainly gave the filmmaker an ease and a comfort to tell his reminiscence. There are some awkward passages, a bit too clinical an approach at times and other flaws, but this late in his career entry is a lovingly personal one. And, if any living filmmaker deserves that benefit of the doubt, it is Pedro Almodovar.
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Coneheads (1993)
Modest big screen adventure of the SNL fave
10 October 2019
As an early Saturday Night Live fan AND a sci-fi nerd, The Coneheads were right up my alley when they debuted on SNL in 1977. Over the next two years, they appeared in 10 more sketches.

But, by the time a Coneheads feature film was released fourteen years later, it already seemed like it was a decade too late. The reviews were middling to bad, so I skipped it.

I'd like to report that time has been kind, and that CONEHEADS is now a hidden gem.... But, my momma told me not to lie. It's pretty much the tired mediocrity that folks said it was 26 years ago. Sure, a tiny bit of nostalgia helps, as does the sheer number of comic actors who cameo in the picture (everyone from Michael Richards to Tim Meadows to Ellen DeGeneres). Somewhat surprisingly, one of those cameos is by Laraine Newman - one of the three original cast members, Connie, the daughter of Beldar and Prymatt (Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin, who respectively do essay their roles). It does kind of make sense to have a 23 year old (Michelle Burke) play the part instead of the then 40-something Newman -- but, the Coneheads are hardly any kind of realistic family anyway. Fortunately, Burke does a pretty good job of giving the film some sweetness, and even somewhat convincingly makes her relationship with Chris Farley believable.

There's not much to say about the movie itself. At a brief 88 minutes it plays like an extended pilot for a sitcom. The long prologue showing how the Coneheads became a suburban family is unnecessary, and it's 'explanations' just make the thinness of the concept that much more apparent. Five minute sketches are one thing, but, a feature film is quite the other, as most other SNL sketches into films have shown (WAYNE'S WORLD and, possibly, THE BLUES BROTHERS notwithstanding).

If one word applies to the effort it would be 'Silly' (others would certainly say 'Unnecessary'; hard to really argue). The characters of INS officials (Michael McKean and David Spade) who are chasing the 'illegal aliens' give the film the barest modicum of relevance, but, they are so broad as to not carry any satirical weight.

CONEHEADS isn't the worst SNL film, but, it isn't much. It's best to take it with a large pinch of nostalgia and to just sit back and enjoy the likes of Dave Thomas, Garrett Morris, Parker Posey et al all gathered in one space (seriously, IMDb the cast list!).

P.S. Another interesting historical note is that CONEHEADS came out the same year as Spielberg's JURASSIC PARK. The stop motion here (by Phil Tippett), would, of course, soon become eclipsed by CGI.
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Raw, rude and raucously entertaining story of Rudy Ray Moore/Dolemite
9 October 2019
Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) was a true from the streets success. And, a late bloomer, as it were. After years of trying to breakthrough as an entertainer in L.A., the 40-something Moore took some stories he heard around his neighborhood and created the stand up comedian character of the cocky Dolemite. That act lead to underground success with self-released record albums and touring. With the Blacksploitation film genre exploding, it was only a matter of time until Dolemite hit the big screen. Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski's script traces those crucial years in Moore's life in the early 70s. A raw, rude and raucous screenplay it is. Director Craig Brewer mostly keeps to the spirit of the writing and lets the dialogue and the acting take center stage. And, with Eddie Murphy delivering a strong energetic performance, it's best to stand back and let him fly. And, soar he does. With the makeup, hair and some extra pounds, Murphy takes on the dynamo persona of Moore/Dolemite. Occasionally, Murphy is "too good" an actor to totally capture the rough hewn Moore, who was more a force of nature than a smooth performer -- but, it's hard to fault him for giving "too good" a performance! Wesley Snipes is almost unrecognizable as D'urville Martin, a "name" actor who Moore lures by letting him Direct. Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Nicholas Von Sternberg* Dolemite's cinematographer straight out of film school who leads a band of young white behind the scenes crew members. The real scene stealer is Da'Vine Joy Randolph as Lady Reed, a small town girl who Moore discovers on tour. The entire cast throws themselves into this with a verge and enthusiasm that is palpable. The movie is a bit too long, with padded exposition and too close a fealty to the bio-pic template, but, as Dolemite himself might say: Who gives a $^@# about that!? You want action? You want laughs? You want some nasty?! We got it all! Listen to Dolemite.

* Note: I've worked closely with Nick Von Sternberg, so yes, it's based on a true person. Very kind gentleman. Indeed, he is the son of master filmmaker Josef Von Sternberg (although he passed when Nick was still a teen). Nick worked for over two decades as a cinematographer before leaving the business.
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Loro (2018)
Terrific Servillo performance; a bit uneven
8 October 2019
"Why can't I run the country like I run my business?!" asks the head of government. The current U.S President? No. It's a line attributed to Italy's Silvio Berlusconi (as played by the brilliant Toni Servillo). The association between the two leaders is intentionally unmistakable in Paolo Sorrentino's sprawling LORO. A bit of knowledge of Italian politics over the past couple of decades, and, Berlusconi in particular, is helpful here. Doubly so, because LORO was released overseas in two parts (the USA cut, 151 minutes, is about 50 minutes shorter than LORO I & II combined). It takes until almost the half-way point before Berlusconi is even mentioned directly (he's referred to as "lui, lui" (him, him) or, on occasion as "Silvio"). The movie is set mainly between the second and third terms of Berlusconi's rule circa 2006-2008. The first half of the movie revolves mainly around Sergio (Riccardo Scamarcio; from JOHN WICK 2) a wannabe political insider who uses guile and the lure of women to get into Berlusconi's orbit. The central bait are modern Bacchanalian extravaganzas often referred to as 'Bunga Bunga Parties' where dozens of nubile women are recruited with the lure of drugs, sex and access to power. Even though Berlusconi himself doesn't appear, Servillo enters playing another character, Ennio, a confidant of the now out of power Prime Minister. Once Berlusconi himself enters, LORO becomes much stronger and more effective. Servillo is a superb actor and he imbues the movie with a strength and and a sense of purpose that brings focus to some of Sorrentino's flamboyant filmmaking. The Director's screenplay (co-written with Umberto Contarello) also becomes more cogent with Berlusconi's Machiavellian maneuvers getting constantly called out by his detractors, including his own wife Veronica (Elena Sofia Ricci; very good). LORO's current cut doesn't help an already episodic structure. As always, Sorrentino gets excellent mileage out of his cinematographer (Luca Bigazzi), and his music choices are compelling. The sheer amount of beautiful bodies on display here is eye-popping (even if it creates its own kind of hypocrisy -- the movie wants to critique the superficial, while often wallowing in it). There's a criminally under-seen Documentary, 2009's VIDEOCRACY where Director Erik Gandini traces how Berlusconi's media empire worked on dumbing down the Italian public with his flashy empty - and very sexed up - TV programming. LORO is strongest when it depicts that corruption of power over the public (in Italian, the title translates alternately as "them" and "gold"). Berlusconi metes out a few morsels to "them" while he collects the "gold". The best scene in the film outside those with Berlusconi comes at the very beginning with a sheep watching one of the leader's vacuous TV programs. Toni Servillo's brilliant performance as Berlusconi carries Sorrentino's uneven epic
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Judy (II) (2019)
Zellweger IS Judy Garland
28 September 2019
Sometimes an entire movie boils down to a lead performance, and JUDY is one of those examples. Fortunately, Renee Zellweger is more than up to to the challenge. Zellweger does more than just an imitation here - sure, the ticks and mannerisms that have been copied and parodied for decades are all on display, but, the actress goes for, and largely, attains several more layers. The script follows the "Last Days" scenario seen in so many bio-pics. The doomed character. The flashbacks. The final triumph. The various side characters who represent assorted people throughout that person's life etc. etc.. Still Zellweger is strong enough to overcome most of the cliches. The rest of the cast does well, but outside of Jessie Buckley as her London assistant, they don't get much to do (Michael Gambon in particular has, almost literally, nothing to do). The Production, music (nice to hear a new Gabriel Yared score), and, most critically, the makeup and hair all work to give us a fairly convincing glimpse of Garland's final months in 1969. Theater Director Rupert Goold keeps the viewer focused on his main character despite some melodramatic passages in Tom Edge's screenplay (based on Peter Quilter's play). The nicest touch is a scene with a male couple (Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira) get to spend a night hosting Judy in London. It's a warm human moment that also pays homage to Garland's relationship with the gay community (a status that she bequeathed to her daughter Liza). Zellweger delivers a strong performance that keeps JUDY moving along, if not always smoothly.
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Ready or Not (I) (2019)
Not as clever as it thinks it is, but, some grim fun
7 September 2019
This would be cheeky satire using a game of deadly Hide and Seek as a metaphor for the vanity of the upper class isn't as clever as it thinks it is, although it does have it's moments. Samara Weaving is Grace, who marries into the rich eccentric family of Alex (Mark O'Brian). Alex doesn't prepare his bride for her wedding night - a game of chance that must be played in order to keep the family tradition alive (conveniently, Grace doesn't bring along any family or friends of her own). Turns out, this wedding's game mixes Hide & Seek with The Most Dangerous Game -- Grace isn't just to be 'found' but hunted down like prey (Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None is also name-checked). Alex's family are a ghoulish lot with Andie MacDowell and Henry Czerny as his parents, Nicky Guadagni as a nasty aunt along with others including new sister in laws played by Elyse Levesque and Melanie Scrofano. Adam Brody is Alex' close brother Daniel. The plot doesn't get much more complicated than the set-up, but those with a sick sense of humor (guilty), will find some devilish delights in the gruesome goings on. Writers Gary Busick and Ryan Murphy (no, not THAT one) along with co-Directors Matt Bettini-Olpin and Tyler Gillett try to add a layer of social commentary about the rich and their lack of empathy, but, it's extremely weak tea. Any real bite is severely undermined by resorting to various versions of F-Bombs. Deep. Weaving makes for a plucky heroine. The actors are game, and the Production Design (Andrew Stearn) is suitably creepy and garish. There are some genuine laughs and some scattered suspense, it's just unfortunate that more care wasn't give to creating a more cohesive tone and, most certainly, another polish of the screenplay. Ready or Not? Mainly: "or".
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A true WTF remake
6 September 2019
With the release this summer of MIDSOMMAR, a riff (if not outright remake) on 1973's classic THE WICKER MAN, I figured it was time to subject myself to the derided official remake* from 2006 with Nicolas Cage. Some credit must be given to Writer-Director Neil LaBute in trying to update the story and setting it in the U.S. Northwest (on an island off of Washington state). But, the tale he comes up with becomes so cock-eyed, that it's no wonder it's been considered an unintended comedy right from its release date (of course, LaBute and Cage have taken to saying the humor was intentional all along!). The film's strange arc can be shown through the performance of Cage himself. Playing a sheriff who, like Edward Woodward in the original, is summoned to an island to investigate the disappearance of a little girl, Cage's early scenes are done in a fairly straight-forward manner. But, as the script gets more and more obtuse, Cage slips into his maniacal overacting mugging that has typified his perfomances over the past couple of decades (to the cruel pleasure of many - the more unhinged, the better for some). There is no question that some of this is intentional. At some point Cage certainly must have sensed that this Wicker was never going to become a beloved straight version of the pagan tale. And, not even Laurence Olivier or Max Von Sydow could be convincing in a ridiculous bear outfit running around the country-side and punching women in the face!! Ellen Burstyn comes off a bit better (it's helpful that she's not even in the first half of the film), and, playing dual roles, Molly Parker manages to keep her dignity despite the foolishness around her. Kate Beahan is such a blank as Cage's ex that one can't tell if her vapidness is intentional or not. I was never a big fan of Neil LaBute's work with such pictures as IN THE COMPANY OF MEN and YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS (they always came off as straining to be 'controversial'), but, even so, this WICKER remake is a pretty shocking fall from grace (other than 2010's DEATH AT A FUNERAL (another remake!) his work has been largely ignored since). The superfluous epilogue was the final nail in this coffin (removed apparently in the Director's Cut). Angelo Bandalementi's score and Paul Sarossy's Cinematography (lensed in Canada) are solid. Seeing this 2006 edition in the wake of MIDSOMMAR (not to mention Hardy's final cut in 2013), one can't help but notice that Ari Aster took almost as much from this remake as he did from the original: The matriarchy, the festival maiden and the bear suit (!) in particular (also notable, Aster insists that his version, too, is largely intentionally humorous and that it's not a bad thing that some audiences were laughing at his "vision").

* The official designation came over the protest of original Director Robin Hardy who wished to be distanced as far as possible (he is credited at the end as the original Director of the '73 version). The original's co-star, Christopher Lee, also voiced strenuous objection. Original writer Anthony Schaffer had passed, so he was given full credit upfront for his screenplay.
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Very fine Doc on Miles Davis which serves as a Biography on film
6 September 2019
Stanley Nelson's documentary MILES DAVIS: BIRTH OF THE COOL attempts to be a full biography on film. That it succeeds so well, is a testament to the long time documentarian - and to the magnificence of its subject, jazz legend Miles Davis. Nelson tells the tale in a fairly straight-forward and, largely, chronological order. From his childhood in an upper middle-class black family in Illinois to his fast rise as a teenage wonder on the trumpet to his status as one of the true pioneers of jazz. Nelson makes the wise choice of having Davis' own words 'narrate' his own story (beautifully voiced by actor Carl Lumbly). Virtually all of the music heard in the Doc is Davis' (music by other performers is specifically cited as such; too bad Nelson isn't as detailed when it comes to keeping the proper aspect ratio of existing footage). Woven through the movie is Davis' struggle against racism, which he discovers at an early age despite his family's relative wealth. While understandable in part, Davis was also prone to resentment and violence (particularly against women -- all of his relationships seem to have ended with the women leaving). Nelson doesn't shy away from the truth here, but never dwells upon it, either. Of course, the emphasis here is on Davis' music. And, what music the viewer gets to hear over the course of the (just under) two hours. Beginning with his work with Charlie Parker and others in the mid-40s, Davis was soon his own band leader and began recording with Gil Evans (a white Arranger with whom Davis would have a long simpatico relationship). Davis spent three semesters at Julliard, which showed his passion for the intense study of the musical form, dispelling the notion that everything in Davis' repertoire was improv. Davis was a master improvisational trumpet player, but, it came from an informed place (something he later tried to imbue in his fellow band members). Davis continued to perform right up to his passing in 1991 at 65. One of the things that makes COOL so satisfying is that Nelson was able to reach so many people who worked with and, loved, Davis. Everyone from French Actress Juliette Gréco to former wife Frances Taylor (who practically steals the movie with her verve and bravado) to musicians Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Ron Carter. Carlos Santana and Quincy Jones are also on hand to provide the perspectives of those who were influenced by his work. Using Davis' own words is invaluable, but, so is the input of those who were there to give another point of view. The only major quibble with Nelson's Doc is that the strict birth to death structure diminishes the kind of emotional and distinctive pull that a less rigid format would have allowed. The movie was co-produced by PBS's American Masters series, which may account for that straight-forwardness (although the sometimes very blue language will have the PBS censors with their fingers on the bleep button...a lot!). A movie about jazz should be a bit looser. Still, COOL is a terrific accomplishment; Whether one is a jazz newbie or an aficionado, one will find a lot here to that satisfies.
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A solid, if brief, introduction to the work of the celebrated writer
4 September 2019
WORLDS OF URSULA K. LeGUIN (2019). A solid, compact (68 mins.) overview of the famed speculative fiction author. With such a short running time, Arwen Curry's Documentary can't delve too deeply into a career that spanned decades, included dozens of novels, books and short stories and had such a profound influence on the arts; Instead, Curry's movie is more of an outline. An Introduction. Some brief biographical details are included, as well as some original footage shot during the last years of her life (she passed in 2018). Rather than attempt a full bibliography of every book and story she wrote, the Doc focuses on a handful of writings to give the essence of her work. Particular emphasis is placed on LeGuin's landmark Earthsea series. Begun in 1968 (Wizard of Earthsea), Curry traces how LeGuin's 6 books went from pure fantasy to more developed SF themes to, by the end with 2001's The Other Wind, a grand vision. Curry shows how the Earthsea series reflected own maturity, not only as a writer, but, as a woman (some of her early work took an implicitly male-dominated viewpoint). Curry includes some efficient animation by Ariel Martian to illustrate some of LeGuin's fantasy worlds, and, amusingly, intercuts footage from old sci-fi films to illustrate the difference between 'hard' SF with LeGuin's more philosophical works. Interviews with celebrated writers extolling the influence of the author include Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon and Neil Gaiman. THE WORLDS OF URSULA K. LeGUIN can best be summed up as an invitation to read her works with a bit of insight into her career as provided here.
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