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The Report (2019)
Greetings again from the darkness. Does the end justify the means? Do two wrongs make a right? These are questions of ethics and morality, and when it comes to the government, they can also be questions of legal and illegal, or even life and death. Scott Z Burns offers up his feature film directorial debut, and he has been best known as a screenwriter for Steven Soderbergh films such as THE LAUNDROMAT, SIDE EFFECTS, and THE INFORMANT! Mr. Burns certainly didn't choose an easy route for his first time in the director chair, as this is a heavy, thought-provoking, stomach-churner.
Adam Driver plays Daniel Jones, a Senate staffer under Senator Dianne Feinstein. She charges him with leading the Senate investigation into the CIA's Enhanced Interrogation Technique (EIT) program after the 9/11 attack. It's easy to see why so many viewed this as a bad gig, but Jones became obsessed with uncovering the truth about what happened, who did what, and who knew what and when they knew it. This government procedural offers us an education on red tape, political boundaries, and the expertise in protecting fiefdoms in D.C. In other words, everything that we fear and despise about our own government officials is on display here.
That said, it is refreshing to see someone so focused on getting to the truth as Jones is/was ... despite the systematic obstacles (destruction of tapes, party divisions). Annette Bening shines as Senator Feinstein and is quite effective in portraying just how difficult it can be for politicians to juggle all sides and pressures when a topic is so "hot". The film covers a period between 2003 and 2012, and most of the run time is spent on Jones' research for the report. The supporting cast is deep and talented, and includes Jon Hamm as Obama Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Michael C Hall, Maura Tierney, Victor Slezak, Tim Blake Nelson, Ben McKenzie, Matthew Rhys, Corey Stoll, and Ted Levine (as CIA Director John Brennan). One of the more interesting aspects of the film involves the contractors behind the EIT program. Basically, they are academics with no real world case studies or experience - just two guys looking to cash in on a lucrative government deal at a time when a country was desperate for answers.
Watching the battle over the final release (or not) of "The Torture Report" (the word torture was redacted here) injects quite a bit of tension, and the inclusion of archival footage from the period is very effective. What's less effective is the overuse of shaky-cam in the first portion of the film, and the score is downright annoying at times as it attempts to ensure we are frustrated with the political wranglings. On the other hand, the dialogue is really crisp and there are some quietly-tense exchanges between folks that are well-written and well-acted. Adam Driver carries the bulk of the film and he is perfectly cast.
The obvious comparisons are to ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN and SPOTLIGHT, though this one never quite reaches that level. Still, it's thought-provoking to watch as Jones considers a New York Times reporter to be the most ethical character he can turn to in his efforts to get the truth out. The film doesn't really choose sides ... everyone who participated in a cover-up or illegal activities takes a shot, as does Kathryn Bigelow's ZERO DARK THIRTY. This was a dark time in U.S. history, and it reminds us how difficult it seems to be to do the right thing while in government. Perhaps that's the biggest takeaway.
Honey Boy (2019)
Greetings again from the darkness. Most 12 year olds don't have a job. Perhaps their parents have assigned a few chores around the house to help them learn responsibility, but for the most part, they go to school and play ... the things that kids do. Shia LaBeouf had 2 jobs as a kid. He was a rising actor and he was employer/quasi-guardian of his father. Now in his 30's, LaBeouf has written a screenplay about his childhood and he stars as his father in an attempt to exorcise some personal demons. It also happens to make for compelling cinema.
The film opens with a montage of cuts between a 20-something LeBeouf (played by Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges) performing stunts on an action movie set (clearly meant to represent TRANSFORMERS) and a serious automobile wreck and subsequent DUI. The wreck caused major damage to his hand and resulted in court-mandated rehabilitation. While in rehab, his therapist (played by Laura San Giacomo) diagnoses him with PTSD ... not military war related, but rather broken family related.
In this film, LeBeouf has named the character based on himself Otis, and the character based on his own father James Lort. In addition to Hedges playing the early-20's version, another rising actor, Noah Jupe, plays Otis as a 12 year old. As rehabbing Otis puts his childhood memories to paper, we see flashbacks featuring the younger Otis and his father. They live in a dump of a motel, and ride to the TV show set (meant to be "Even Stevens") on dad's motorcycle. James Lort/dad is a former performing clown, recovering addict, and ex-con. He's the kind of guy who talks a big game and blames everyone else for keeping him from succeeding. To put it mildly ... he's a jerk. That's not to say he doesn't have his moments as a caring parent, but those moments are nullified by the bullying and threats of violence towards his young son. That son is desperate to please his dad, yet wise enough to know that he's not to be trusted.
Shia LeBeouf dives in head first to play the man who had such an impact on his early years. This, mind you, is the kind of man who offers cigarettes to his young son, makes fun of his pre-pubescent body, and is quite jealous of his budding career. LeBeouf is at his best in a difficult role that surely cuts very deep for him. Supporting roles are played by singer FKA Twigs as the shy neighbor girl who befriends Otis, plus Natasha Lyonne, Maika Monroe, Clifton Collins Jr, and Byron Bowers.
Director Alma Har'el structures her first narrative feature film (she has previously worked on videos and documentaries) with timelines showing Otis at the two ages. There are no fancy camera tricks. Instead she trusts these talented actors to bring it home ... and that they do very well. Lucas Hedges was Oscar nominated for MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, and he is in the beautiful upcoming film WAVES. Noah Jupe is a star in the making, having previously appeared in A QUIET PLACE, and in the exhilarating upcoming film FORD VS FERRARI. These are some top notch actors at their very best.
As viewers, we have to remove ourselves from feeling anger and disgust towards the James Lort character. That's easier said than done when he says things like "The only thing my father gave me of any value was pain." It's meant to sum up his reasoning for his own parenting approach. There is a truly brilliant, and well-coordinated scene that acts as a three-way phone conversation between father, son, and estranged wife/mother. The kid is put smack in the middle of the two people who are supposed to love and nurture and protect him. Instead, Otis comes across as the adult. We do get some comic relief with the 'world's first daredevil chicken', but this is just not a warm, cuddly father-son fairy tale. This was real life for Shia LeBeouf and he's brave to bring it out in the open, even if it's less confession and more therapeutic session. He deserves it after hearing, "I'm your cheerleader, Honey Boy", and "Trust me, I'm your father."
Greetings again from the darkness. Japan's World War II goal was to devastate the United States Navy fleet in the South Pacific, thereby securing the area as their own and crippling the U.S. military beyond hope. The December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor was the first step and the most infamous. Over the next few months, what followed were the Raid on Tokyo (April 1942), Battle of Coral Sea (May 1942) and the Battle of Midway (June 1942). Stating that these battles changed the war is not an understatement, as the Imperial Japanese Navy had previously been viewed as superior (especially after the destruction at Pearl Harbor). Director Roland Emmerich (THE PATRIOT, INDEPENDENCE DAY) has never met a war or explosion or special effect he didn't like, so we know going in that, given the subject matter and the filmmaker, the screen will be filled with action.
Emmerich co-wrote the script with Wes Tooke (his first feature script), and as with many WWII movies, it acts as a history lesson on a war that changed the world. This one focuses on naval strategy and particularly on the individuals who defined courage and heroism ... many names we recognize from history books. The contrast between Japanese military leaders and United States military leaders is on full display, and it's no surprise that the Japanese leaders are mostly portrayed as cold and calculating, while the U.S. leaders come across as more humanistic and resourceful. Pride is evident on both sides - it's just displayed differently.
The players are crucial to the story. Woody Harrelson plays Admiral Chester Nimitz, Dennis Quaid is Vice Admiral "Bull" Halsey (commander of aircraft carrier USS Enterprise), Patrick Wilson is Intelligence Officer Lieutenant Commander Edwin Layton, Jake Weber is Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance, Luke Evans is Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky, Brennan Brown plays Joseph Rochefort (leader of the code breaker team), and Aaron Eckhart is Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, the extraordinary pilot who led the Raid on Tokyo in April 1942. On the Japanese side, Tadanabu Asano plays Rear Admiral Yamaguchi (commander of the aircraft carrier Hiryu), Jun Kunimura is Admiral Nagumo (he of questionable battle decisions), and Enushi Toyokawa plays Admiral Yamamoto, the most dignified and influential of the Japanese leaders.
Much of the story is told from the perspective of naval pilot Lieutenant Dick Best (Ed Skrein, DEADPOOL). While personal stories and challenges faced by individuals makes for a relatable story for viewers, there is something about this particular actor that comes across as awkward and difficult to bond with. There is no doubting the character and courage of Dick Best as a pilot; however, Skrein's performance is flat out annoying and distracting. The dive bombing missions are breathtaking and thrilling, but overall the liberal use of green screen for effects detracts from the realistic looks we've come to expect for war movies.
Mandy Moore as Anne Best, and Nick Jonas as a mechanic, are cast for relatability by viewers, but the value in the film comes from an easy-to-follow description of the contrasting strategies of the two militaries. It's also a reminder that the "big" story of WWII is comprised of many individual stories of people ... people who were brave and heroic in a time of need. So ignore the cheesy affects, unrealistic dialogue, and irritating performances, and instead take in the work and actions of those who saved the world.
Greetings again from the darkness. Sintra is a resort town in Portugal, not far from Lisbon. It is breathtakingly beautiful with mountains, beaches, cliffs, colorful gardens and a picturesque town filled with charming churches and majestic castles. Writer-director Ira Sach's film probably should have been bank-rolled by Sintra's tourism committee, because the town is surely to be on the must-see travel list of every person who sees this movie. Unfortunately, what works as a travel tease, offers little else as a cinematic or entertainment vehicle.
Beloved French actress Isabelle Huppert stars as beloved French actress Francois, better known as Frankie. She has organized a vacation gathering for her modern day family consisting of her second and current husband, Scotsman Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson), her first husband, gay man Michel (Pascal Gregory), teenage granddaughter Maya (Sennia Nanua) and Maya's two quarrelling parents Ian (Ariyon Bakare) and Sylvia (Vinette Robinson), and Frankie's self-centered and problematic son Paul (Jeremie Renier). Also invited is Ilene (Marisa Tomei), Frankie's long-time friend and hair stylist, who without telling Frankie, brought along a date, cinematographer Gary (Greg Kinnear). When someone complains about her inviting Ilene, Frankie replies, think of it as "Family Plus One."
Frankie has arranged this trip under the guise of 'a final goodbye'. Her cancer has returned, and it's likely to take her life very soon. Despite that, it really appears Frankie is acting as a matchmaker for her jerky son Paul, by thinking he and the delightful Ilene might be a good fit ... you know, since she lives in New York and he's moving there. This speaks to the blindness of parents towards their own kids, but also the never-ending hope for their happiness. During this trip, we witness one of the most awkward proposals ever, plus a re-telling of a family secret at a most inopportune time. The latter is likely the most interesting segment of the movie.
Ira Sachs and his writing partner Mauricio Zacharias are known for NYC-based stories like LITTLE MEN (2016) and LOVE IS STRANGE (2014), so this idyllic setting is a bit outside their wheelhouse. We listen in on many awkward conversations, and the film involves mostly walking and talking ... with a high percentage of it being Frankie hiking on trails while wearing heels. There is an effective cloud of sadness over most every moment, and the overload of melancholy represents the struggles of this group getting through a single day. Somehow even the beautiful final shot doesn't deliver any more emotional impact than the rest of the film. There just isn't much here other than what most of us regularly experience in life ... well, other than Sintra as a setting.
Greetings again from the darkness. At least once per year, a movie really hits a sweet spot ... something that is fun to watch and not really like anything we've previously seen. Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho's latest film is this year's cinematic surprise. It's filled with interesting characters, social commentary, a unique setting, a creative and twisty story, and enough tension that we are left stunned as the end credits roll. There have already been a few excellent movies this year, and this is surely to be a memorable addition to the best of 2019.
We first meet the Kims, a family in poverty living in near-squalor in a basement level apartment with one small window. That window is at street level and allows a bit of natural light to leak in, and also provides a too-clear view of drunks targeting the window as they relieve themselves. The family keeps the window open for free fumigation as the city sprayers drive past, in hopes that it will get rid of the pesky stink bug infestation (yes, there is symmetry to this later in the story). The Kim family consists of Dad (Kang-ho Song), Mother (Hye-jin Jang), teenage son Kevin/Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) and 20-something daughter Jessica/Ki-jung (So-dam Park), and they react strongly when they lose "free hi-fi" access from a neighbor's system. The family seems to make just enough money for their next meal despite somehow underperforming at their family job of folding pizza boxes for a local vendor.
Fortunes begin to change for the Kims when one of Kevin's friends ask him to take over tutoring a teenage girl for a wealthy family in town. This sets off an ingenious and sometimes quite funny chain of events that result in all four Kim family members working in some capacity for the Parks, the aforementioned wealthy family. The Park's home was designed by a famous architect and it is a stunning modern hillside home with lush garden and a window that stands in stark contrast to that little window in the Kim's city apartment. Mr. Park (Sun-kyun Lee) is a 1% tech titan married to a high-strung woman who is an eternally anxious and over-matched mom (a fantastic Yeo-jeong Jo). Their two kids are lustful teenage daughter Da-hye (Ji-so Jung) and hyperactive young son Da-song (Hyun-jun Jung).
It's fascinating to watch how this family of schemers infiltrates this gullible and vulnerable upper class home, and how they so are easily trusted thanks to photoshop skills, Google, and a street-wise understanding of how to read people. The script, co-written by the director and Han Jin Won, explores the co-dependency as the rich depend on the poor for service work, and the poor depend on the rich for jobs and a living wage. Given the film's title, we soon realize that a "host" may have more than one parasite at any time ... something that plays out in what has to be the wildest film twist of the year, thanks to an all-out performance from Jeong-eun Lee as the Park's long-time housekeeper.
The social and class commentaries are spread throughout, and in addition to the window comparisons, you'll also notice that the walk is uphill to the Parks' home and downhill (and flood-risky) to the Kim's apartment. There are multiple layers within the stories and within the individual characters. What begins as a devastating social satire morphs into a wild and crazy time of violence ... without losing its general theme. A comedy of familial con artists bursts into a violent class thriller - the price to pay for unearned comfort. The film is not just unpredictable, it smacks us with a jarring twist.
Bong Joon Ho has become a well-respected filmmaker for his previous work: THE HOST 2006, MOTHER 2009, SNOWPIERCER 2013, and OKJA 2017. This latest elevates him to a whole new level. The film is darkly humorous and unpredictable, with excellent performances throughout. It's also quite something to look at. Cinematographer Kyung-pyo Hong works his magic, and it should be noted that the Park's home is a complete set built solely for the film. I challenge you to notice this - I sure couldn't tell. The film won the 2019 Palme d'Or at Cannes Film Festival, and it is likely headed for many more accolades.
Les petites mains (2017)
Greetings again from the darkness. Staging a kidnapping is one of the quickest ways to create cinematic tension. When that kidnapping involves a toddler, the emotions and tensions fly off the charts. With only his third film, writer-director Remi Allier won France's Cesar Award for Best Short Film. Mr. Allier co-wrote the film with Julien Guetta and Gilles Monnat, and their film will have you on the edge of your seat for the full 15 minute run time.
We first see emotions erupting during labor negotiations between the workers' Union and the shareholders of a factory that is being shut down. The negotiations are raucous, and the factory manager's wife (on site for some inexplicable reason) decides its best if she takes their toddler son Leo home. In the blink of an eye, a mother's poor decision leads to an even worse spontaneous decision by Bruno, one of the frantic workers.
Screen vet Jan Hammenecker plays Bruno, and Emile Moulron Lejeune is little Leo. Much of what happens next is shown from the toddler's point of view, and it's the faces of Leo and Bruno that tell the story ... very little dialogue is heard after the opening sequence.
Director Allier's film displays class disparity and how emotions can lead to decisions so bad that lives are forever altered. Some of the camera work here is excellent, and the tension as a viewer is at maximum capacity.
Be still, young man
Greetings again from the darkness. Westerns are always a risky proposition for a filmmaker, but some are drawn to the genre and seem to thrive on the intricacies that fans have come to expect. Justin Lee is one such filmmaker. He wrote and directed this film and follows the familiar tropes: a quiet, proud protagonist; the strong, lonely woman; the corrupt gunslinger - maybe wearing a badge, maybe not; and of course, the battle of good versus evil.
Kevin Makely stars as Matthias Breecher, a Civil War veteran and now Pinkerton detective carrying out the orders of Senator Benjamin Burke (Tony Todd, CANDY MAN, 1992). Senator Burke has pledged to track down war criminals and hold them accountable by administering justice. Breecher is the Senator's hired hand who travels from town to town, serving warrants and dealing with those who refuse to abide
Mr. Lee's film is divided into four chapters. Chapter 1, "The General", finds Breecher face-to-face with tough-talking General Corbin Dandridge (Trace Adkins). It's here where Breecher first flashes his impressive gun skills, and it's soon after where he crosses paths with Harlow (recent honorary Oscar recipient Wes Studi), a competitor in the "bounty-hunter" game. Chapter 2, "The Cooke's" has Breecher tracking down Reginald Cooke (played for all it's worth by a finger-wagging Bruce Dern), a sickly old man dying slowly from pneumonia and living with his daughter Sarah (Oscar winner Mira Sorvino). Local bad guy Fred Quaid (James Russo) is trying to seize the Cooke's land (apparently this is the possessive apostrophe in the chapter title). During this segment we get a nasty fist fight, an ugly shootout, and Breecher falling for Sarah and actually shushing his horse. Chapter 3, "The Sheriff", brings us to the terrifically named town of "Knife's Edge" where equally terrifically named evil guy Huxley Wainwright (Jeff Fahey) wears a badge and rules the town with a reign of terror, and with Old West waterboarding. There is even a double-tap grave side shootout. It's an old mining town and the citizens live in fear - especially the good-hearted barkeep Alice (Amanda Wyss). The segment ends with a 'high noon' duel in the dusty street.
Chapter 4, "Breecher", acts as a finale for our hero, a man we are told was "born to violence." His dreams of owning land may have faded, and soul-searching has him reckoning with the man he's become. Mr. Makely reminds of actor Anson Mount in his ability to hold a scene, and we can't help but think that in his younger years, Mr. Fahey could have easily played the Breecher role. Despite the out-of-place linguistic stylings, director Lee proves the lessons of the old west never get old, and it leaves us with the message ... 'Be still, young man."
Jojo Rabbit (2019)
wacky with feeling
Greetings again from the darkness. Welcome to the most divisive movie of the year. Some will scoff at the idea and deride the filmmaker without ever even seeing the movie. Some will relay disgust after seeing the movie. A few won't appreciate the style or structure, and will fail to find the humor. Ah yes, but some of us will embrace Taika Waititi's wacky adaptation of Christine Leunens' 2018 novel "Caging Skies" as one of the funniest and most heart-warming films of the year ... fully acknowledging that many won't see it our way.
One wouldn't be off base in asking why a successful filmmaker would tackle such a risky project: a coming-of-age comedy-drama-fantasy about a 10 year old Nazi fanatic who has as his imaginary friend, not a 6 foot rabbit, but the Fuhrer himself, Adolph Hitler. After all, writer-director Waititi is coming off a couple of brilliant indies (2014's WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, and 2016's HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE) and a major score with Marvel money on THOR: RAGNAROK (2017), arguably the most entertaining superhero movie of the past few years. He certainly could have continued to cash in with 'safer' choices; however, Mr. Waititi sees the world differently than most of us. He finds humor in the drudgery, and humanity in malevolence. He's also a bit goofy.
Playing over the opening credits is the German version of "I Want to Hold Your Hand", as we see old clips of German citizens cheering for Adolph Hitler in a similar manner to how fans used to scream for The Beatles. World War II is nearing the end as we meet 10 year old Jojo Betzler (newcomer Roman Griffin Davis). Jojo is fervent in his fanaticism towards the Nazi way, and buys into the belief that Jews are monsters with horns on their head. He's such a believer that his imaginary friend is actually Hitler, well at least a bumbling boisterous version played by the filmmaker himself - enacted to extreme comedy effect (recalling a bit of Chaplin in THE GREAT DICTATOR). Mel Brooks managed to play Hitler to a laughable extreme in "Springtime for Hitler" in THE PRODUCERS, but the only thing missing her from Waititi's costume is an old timey dunce cap.
Jojo lives at home with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), while dad is off fighting on the front line. Ms. Johansson's performance is terrific (despite limited screen time) as she creates a believably warm bond with her son during horrific times. Soon, Jojo is off to a Nazi camp designed to teach the boys how to fight (and burn books), as the girls learn the virtues of having babies. The camp leaders are Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), who is a bit of a joke on the surface, but more interesting the deeper we dig; Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) who boasts of having 18 Aryan babies; and Finkel (Alfie Allen) a violent psychopath. At camp with Jojo is his best friend Yorki (newcomer and scene-stealer Archie Yates), and the two show what a genuine friendship can be as the movie progresses.
Things change quickly for Jojo when, by happenstance, he discovers a Jewish girl living in the walls of his home. Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie, LEAVE NO TRACE) shows none of the characteristics that Jojo has been brainwashed into believing all Jews possess. She has no horns, flashes a good sense of humor, and is actually very nice and knowledgeable. In other words, she's no monster. As they get to know each other, Jojo realizes this "nice" Jewish girl contrasts starkly with his lunatic hero Adolph.
Waititi's film is ingenious satire, and it likely won't sit well with those who think not enough time has passed to justify making fun of Nazi atrocities. It's funny and heavy, and deals with some thought-provoking matter in an unusual way. The "Heil Hitler" count approaches the 'F-word' frequency of most Tarantino movies, and there is a German Shepherd gag that caught the audience off-guard. Stephen Merchant's Gestapo search of Jojo's house is comedy at its weirdest. The movie messes with your head as it's some odd blend of SCHINDLER'S LIST, "The Diary of Anne Frank", and an extended Monty Python skit.
It's rare for a film that borders on slapstick at times to have so many touching and emotional moments. The actors are really strong here, especially Ms. Johansson and Ms. McKenzie, who as gutsy Elsa, proves again she is quickly becoming a powerhouse young actor. Roman Griffin Davis carries a significant weight in the story despite being a first time actor, and I can't emphasize enough how young Archie Yates will steal your heart while he's stealing his scenes. Michael Giacchino's score and Mihai Malaimaire Jr's terrific cinematography work well with Waititi's vision ... a satirical vision that would never work outside of his unique filmmaking talent. The story is basically proof of the adage, 'Kill 'em with kindness', when what we are really killing is hatred. At its core, this is a story of humanity and human nature, and how we grab hold of the wrong thing until the truth becomes evident. Now, please pass the unicorn.
Motherless Brooklyn (2019)
a worthy throwback
Greetings again from the darkness. Gumshoe film noir from the 1940's and 1950's is probably my favorite genre after suspense thrillers. Classics like THE MALTESE FALCON, KISS ME DEADLY, A LONELY PLACE, LAURA, and DOUBLE INDEMNITY draw me in with style, mood, and character flaws. Tough guys and clever women combined with secrets, empty clues, and false bunny trails can mesmerize me for hours. Evidently Edward Norton shares my affection for this genre, as he purposefully shifted the time frame of Jonathan Lethem's novel from 1999 to 1957 for the big screen adaptation.
Norton dons 4 hats for his passion project that's been brewing for almost a decade. He writes, directs (his second time at the helm), produces, and stars as Lionel Essog, the assistant to Private Investigator Frank Minna (played by Bruce Willis). Lionel, often referred to as "Brooklyn" or "Freak Show" suffers from Tourette's syndrome, causing him many uncomfortable moments of awkward verbal outbursts and physical tics, while also blessing him with a photographic memory and world class attention to detail. The concern here was that Norton the actor would turn the character into a gumshoe "Rain Man", but that never happens, as his affliction rarely overshadows a scene or the story.
One of the first things we notice is that the film looks beautiful. The costumes (Amy Roth) and set design (Beth Mickle, Kara Zeigon) and cinematography (2-time Oscar nominee Dick Pope) are all spot on and top notch. The classic cars are especially impressive, despite my pet peeve of each being perfectly washed and waxed in every scene. Daniel Pemberton's retro score perfectly captures the neo-noir moments.
This era in New York included jazz clubs, corrupt politicians and power struggles for profiteering from the growth. Norton's film delivers The King's Rooster jazz club with the great Michael Kenneth Williams as the featured trumpet player ... he looks like a natural on stage in the smoky club. We also, of course, have plenty of big time corruption and scheming. The main culprit being City Planner Moses Randolph, the epitome of corruption and racism. Alec Baldwin could play this role in his sleep, and he performs admirably in the not-so-subtle riff on the real life Robert Moses.
The film's opening sequence leaves Lionel committed to solving the murder of Minna, his mentor and (only) friend. His co-workers played by Dallas Roberts, Bobby Cannavale, and Ethan Suplee come in and out of the story, contributing very little. Things are most interesting when Lionel crosses paths with brilliant city engineer Paul (Willem Dafoe in a less salty role than in THE LIGHTHOUSE) and activist Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), in a role that would have benefitted from some beefing up in the script. Other supporting roles are filled by Leslie Mann, Fisher Stevens, Cherry Jones, and Josh Pais.
The story follows a path not dissimilar to the all-time classic CHINATOWN, and it's in that comparison where the weaknesses in Norton's film are most evident. The dialogue never quite clicks like it should, and at times it comes across like the actors are simply playing dress up 1950's-style, rather than actually experiencing the struggles of the story. Everything just seems too 'clean' for this genre, even the moments of violence. It's the details that make the difference in this genre, and even Norton's voiceover is mishandled. As narrator, his voice is low and gruff which is customary for noir; however, while in character, the voice is high-pitched and sporadic. Both voices are as they should be, but since it's the same character, the contrast takes us out of the moment when the narrator chimes in. The Tourette's Association of America gave its stamp of approval to the film, and we do walk away with sage advice: "Never lie to a woman who is smarter than you."
Harriet was due
Greetings again from the darkness. As far as I can tell, there has never before been a feature film profiling Harriet Tubman. Given her remarkable accomplishments and historic standing as an iconic American hero, we should all agree that it's high time. The film plays as a passion project for writer-director Kasi Lemmons (EVE'S BAYOU, 1997) and her co-writer Gregory Allen Howard (REMEMBER THE TITANS, 2000). Cinematically speaking, it's a fairly formulaic biopic; however, from a historical perspective, HARRIET is story that was due to be told.
Cynthia Erivo (WIDOWS, BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE) stars as Araminta Ross, known as Minty. She was born into slavery, and the film picks up in 1849 Maryland when she is being sold 'down south' by her heartless owner Gideon Brodess (an understated Joe Alwyn, THE FAVOURITE). Rather than be separated from her family, Minty runs (she does a lot of running). She runs until cornered, and then leaps from a bridge into rushing water. It's only after her treacherous 100 mile walk to Pennsylvania that she becomes a free woman and changes her name to Harriet Tubman - in honor of her mother and husband.
She receives help along the way. Reverend Samuel Green (Vondie Curtis Hall) plays a recurring role in her escape and later rescues. Once in Pennsylvania, she meets abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, 2017), who runs the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and introduces her to fellow abolitionist Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monae). Ms. Buchanan is a free black woman, as elegant in her manner as she is dedicated to the cause ... and she's worthy of her own story.
Harriet decides she must go back and rescue her family. She is told the trip is foolish and too risky - which doesn't stop her from making 13 trips and saving 70 slaves. We learn of her work with the Underground Railroad - not a train, but rather a secretive organization committed to helping slaves escape to freedom. After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Harriet's work becomes even more difficult, as she must guide the slaves all the way to Canada. Omar J Dorsey plays Bigger Long, an expert slave hunter - yes, that's an actual occupation - hired by Harriet's owner to capture her. When Harriet converts Walter the scout (Henry Hunter Hall), the colorful character becomes a valuable ally and strong believer.
As a young girl, Minty/Harriet had her skull cracked by a slave owner whilst standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. After that, she experienced episodes, "spells" that she claimed were visions from God. The film captures quite a few of these and treats Harriet as someone "touched". Was this the prophecy or was Harriet an extraordinarily resourceful and tenacious woman? The message of God is present throughout, and it's difficult to not view this as unintentionally taking a chip out of what Harriet accomplished.
Slave owners were baffled by the rescues conducted by this mythic figure they named "Moses". Of course, they assumed it was a man, and once Harriet's identity was exposed, her former owner was held accountable by other slave owners. It's at that point where Gideon Brodess' mother Eliza makes one of the most cold-hearted, racist speeches we've seen on film. Eliza is played by Jennifer Nettles, the singer for C&W band Sugarland. In 1858, Harriet crosses paths with abolitionists John Brown and Frederick Douglas, and delivers an impassioned speech of her own in the presence of Senator William Seward (one of Booth's targets in the Lincoln assassination). Harriet assisted Brown with recruitment for his raid on Harpers Ferry. In 1863, Harriet led the Comahee River Raid, which resulted in 750 slaves being set free.
The film might be a bit slick, but the acting is top notch, and Harriet's story is remarkable. Director Lemmons forgoes the brutality of 12 YEARS A SLAVE, and tries to cover Harriet's time as a slave, her first escape off the bridge, and her continued work freeing other slaves. Harriet went on to become a Civil War spy for the Union, and later a respected elder who worked for women's voting rights and to make latter life a bit easier for former slaves. It's possible a movie was not the best format to tell Harriet's story ... a story that continued to develop until her death in 1913 at age 91 (or thereabouts). But it's important to have her story documented in some way other than the textbooks kids likely won't read. A film that tackles such a towering historical figure deserves a little slack.
Greetings again from the darkness. Living in constant fear. Never able to relax. The unrelenting fear of being discovered. These are the challenges faced daily by illegal immigrants.
This is the fourth short film from award winning writer-director Julio O Ramos, and the script was co-written with Lucas Mireles. Armando is the site supervisor over a crew working to renovate a home. When one of the workers falls from the roof and is seriously injured, the contrasting reactions are stunning. Armando is worried about the man's condition and how to get him treatment, while the other workers are more concerned with how this might affect their own situations.
When the big boss shows up and calls his "personal" doctor to attend to the injured worker, things go sideways quickly and Armando's well-intentioned approach is exposed as naivety. Tenoch Huerta (SIN NOMBRE) plays Armando, and Karran Karagulian (TANGERINE) plays the big boss. This little 14 minute film drives home the constant fear faced by illegal immigrants, and the extreme situation that often sustains an entire industry. As these folks strive to remain "invisible" to the world, one man doing the right thing can expose something that is very wrong.
Missing a Note (2019)
the other person's music
Greetings again from the darkness. Young Molly is a bundle of nerves. Her mom smiles, and tries to be reassuring and a calming influence. When they arrive at their destination, the stately mansion is intimidating and only increases Molly's anxiety.
The young girl is here to sing for John, a retired Opera legend, in hopes that he will provide a glowing scholarship report/letter of recommendation. Offering up one final pep talk is Angie, John's wife of 50 years, herself a former dancer. Life lessons come at Molly pretty quickly here, as her initial disappointment turns into surprise, and a glimpse at what accompanies old age. Angie is working hard to protect her lifelong love from the slow descent caused by dementia, while Molly learns one of life's harsh realities - we don't always know what others are going through.
This is writer-director Beth Moran's first film, and it's a 15 minute emotional powerhouse. Ms. Moran was the youngest female pilot to fly with the (USAF) Thunderbirds, and her next project is the just released documentary EVERYBODY FLIES; a film that examines the air we breathe on airplanes. The cast here is exceptional. Ian McElhinney plays John. Mr. McElhinney has an almost 40 year screen career, appearing in such 'minor' projects as ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY, and "Game of Thrones." Elaine Page plays John's wife Angie, and Ms. Page is best known for her musical stage work. Newcomer Darcy Jacobs plays Molly, and shows some nice range for a young actor.
Ms. Moran's short film played before some screenings of the DOWNTON ABBEY movie in the U.K., so it's already had better exposure than most shorts ever get. The film's message of how dementia impacts more than just the afflicted person is quite a gut-punch and lesson for us all.
Please, tell her goodbye
Greetings again from the darkness. Sure, we like to "name" our cars. And yes, we have memories of our first car - some fond, some a bit less so. But deep emotional attachments to a car are somewhat rare. After all, it's just hunks of metal, rubber, and plastic all assembled into a form of transportation ... a vehicle to get us from one place to the next, and hopefully back home again.
We join in what looks to be a typical family road trip. Mother, grandmother and two young girls are buckled in as the miles roll on. Mom scolds the kids for making a mess, and the grandmother eases tension by passing out candy. A roadside stop for ice cream is always a popular idea. What we learn is that the mother is having financial difficulties and the purpose of the trip is to sell the car she has named "Sylvia", after the classic song from Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show.
Richard Prendergast's first film is 'based on a true story', and it is absolutely brilliant in its presentation - both visually and emotionally. Jolie Lennon, known best for her stunt work, is terrific as Mandy, the mom who must sell the car. It's clear that she is carrying a weight on the trip, and the stunning third act brings it all into focus. This is an extraordinary short film, and it's one I would have gladly paid 40 cents more for the next 3 minutes.
The Current War (2017)
Rivalry needs to be charged
Greetings again from the darkness. Electricity. Bringing light and power to the world. Other than dependable food sources and clean water and air, nothing is more vital to our way of life today. However, going back in time only 125 years finds the sun and candlelight as the only forms of illumination. Oh, but behind the doors of laboratories for Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, skilled engineers were working diligently to discover the breakthrough that would deliver light to the dark world.
Normally the making of a movie is not a story worth telling. The final work should speak for itself. But the story of this film's road to the screen is not normal. This was the film Harvey Weinstein was working on when his sex abuse scandal broke. Weinstein went ahead with the screening of the film at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival despite pleas from the director that the film was not ready to be shown. Once the scandal hit, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (the excellent ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, 2015) was helpless - he couldn't access the film for reshoots and final edit. Now, after two years of legal wranglings, he is finally able to present his finished project.
On one hand, it's a feel good story for the director. On the other hand, the film falls short of being a top notch historical drama ... despite it being a real life drama that changed the world. Most would agree there isn't much entertainment value in watching the daily trial and error of engineers in a lab, so it makes perfect sense that director Gomez-Rejon and writer Michael Mitnick would turn their focus on the personal and professional rivalry between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, as well as a portion of the story involving Serbian immigrant Nikola Tesla - perhaps the most brilliant of them all.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Edison, a true celebrity and renowned inventor. We see how Edison's family life with wife Mary (Tuppence Middleton) takes a back seat to his work at his Menlo Park lab; a trait that becomes more extreme after a personal tragedy. Michael Shannon plays George Westinghouse, developer of railway air brakes, in a stoic and focused manner, and with a close relationship with his wife Marguerite (Katherine Waterston). Nicholas Hoult portrays Nikola Tesla, he of brilliant mind contrasted with quirky and fastidious ways. The other two key players here are Matthew Macfayden as JP Morgan, the banker who finances much of the work, and Tom Holland as Samuel Insull, Edison's loyal assistant.
While difficult to imagine now, the big debate boiled down to what form of electricity was most practical for the masses. Edison believed it was direct current (DC), while Westinghouse and Tesla were all in for alternating current (AC), which they believed to be cheaper and more powerful. Edison, ever the media manipulator, created questions of public safety in regards to AC by pulling dramatic public stunts. An interesting note here is that despite Edison's pledge to never invent military weapons or anything designed to take a life, it was his work that led to the use of the electric chair as a replacement for hangings in death penalty cases.
This rivalry between two titans of industry never seems to click, and sadly, Tesla's story comes across as an add-on to the movie - though his work is worthy of its own movie. Westinghouse deals with his Civil War flashbacks, and Edison's coarse nature is dulled somewhat here in an effort to make him a bit more appealing as a character. The 1893 Chicago World's Fair provides the "finish line" for this competition, with the winner lighting up the Fair and setting the stage for the rest of the country. There are flickers of a great movie here, and the performances reach the expected levels for such a strong cast, but overall the movie comes across a bit disjointed and trying much too hard to be regarded as a prestigious film.
Did you hear that?
Greetings again from the darkness. Did you hear that? While watching a movie, you are likely aware of explosions and spoken dialogue, but it's quite astounding how many other sounds can make up a movie-watching experience. While it's true that we think of movies as a visual medium, it's not a complete description. Oscar winning director Steven Spielberg said, "Our ears lead our eyes to where the story lives."
Midge Costin was a noted Sound Editor from 1986 through 1998 on such films as CRIMSON TIDE, CON AIR, and ARMAGEDDON. She then transitioned to education and has spent 20 years at the renowned USC Film School, holding the Kay Rose endowed chair in the Art of Dialogue and Sound Editing. She is truly a sound expert, and in this, her directorial debut, she beautifully lays out the art form of sound that takes place within the art form of cinema.
Ms. Costin structures the film with an historical timeline, personal profiles of some of the most important figures in sound, and a breakdown of sound segments and technology. Along the way she includes film clips to provide specific examples, and interviews for industry insight. The film takes us back to 1877 and Edison's phonograph, and on to 1927 when THE JAZZ SINGER delivered Al Jolson's voice. 1933's KING KONG mesmerized with the first true sound effects, and we learn the direct connection between movie sound and radio. We really get the inside scoop on the breakthroughs of American Zoetrope (founded by Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas), and the importance of Barbra Sreisand's demands for A STAR IS BORN (1976), Robert Altman's multi-track NASHVILLE, and the "Wookie" sounds of STAR WARS. Of course, many other films and filmmakers (including Stanley Kubrick) are singled out for moving sound forward.
Some of the most interesting data comes courtesy of the "nerds" known as Sound Designers. Walter Murch (APOCALYPSE NOW), Ben Burtt (STAR WARS), Gary Rydstrom (JURASSIC PARK), and Lora Hirschberg (INCEPTION) are all Oscar winners, and their insight is fascinating along with that of Cece Hall, Bobby Banks, and Anna Behlmer - the latter of whom recounts her experience as a woman doing the fighter jet sounds for TOP GUN.
Cinema sound is divided into Music, sound effects, and voice, with each of these sections have sub-categories. Automated Dialogue Replacement (ADR), digital layers (through Pixar), ambience, and the custom effects of the Foley are all parts of the circle of talent delivering puzzle pieces to the Sound Mixer for assembly. If all of this hits you as a bit too technical, you should know that it's presented in a manner that makes it easy to follow. Sound is what pushes cinema into an immersive experience for viewers, and you'll likely walk away from Ms. Costin's film with an appreciation of just how many elements go into what you hear during a movie - and that's worth listening to.
En værdig mand (2018)
a smile in the mirror
Greetings again from the darkness. Alright, who is excited for movie about a middle-aged man's depression? No? How about if that man is also treated as an outcast within his own family? Well, filmmaker Kristian Haskjold and writer Marianne Lentz manage to inject some humor into a situation that is not so uncommon, while also generating food for thought.
Eriq (played by Troels Lyby) is a nightshift baker. The timing of his work isolates him from his family. They seem to put up with him by mostly ignoring his attempts to test out his "dad" jokes on them. Each week, Eriq calls into the local radio station in hopes of being names the "Joker of the Week." This desperate attempt to be noticed is one of the signs of depression we see in Eriq.
Many folks struggle to find happiness, to "fit in", or simply to be noticed. It's sometimes laughed off as a "mid-life crisis", but without connection and a reason to live, depression can take hold. Thoreau wrote, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them." If you find yourself, like Eriq, practicing your fake smile in the mirror, don't settle for being able to tell a joke ... make sure you have personal connections in your life. Loneliness is no laughing matter and Mr. Haskjold's film is a stark reminder.
bullies and karma
Greetings again from the darkness. There are bullies. There are those who get bullied. There are bystanders who watch the bullying. There are those who get involved. Writer-director Carlota Martinez-Pereda's 14 minute gem won the Goya for Best Short Fiction Film, and her film is remarkable in its ability to wring out so many emotions so quickly.
Sara (played beautifully by actress Laura Galan) has purposefully chosen off hours for a dip at the local swimming pool. She nervously scans the area as she slowly prepares to enter the water. She is startled by a man surfacing. The two make eye contact as he heads to his parked truck. We viewers see something that Sara doesn't.
Once Sara is in the water, a group of girls, including one she knows, begin to verbally abuse her - calling her names and making fun of her overweight physique. Soon one of them is using the cleaning net to hold Sara's head underwater. The man in the truck watches this unfold. By the time Sara climbs out of the pool, the girls and the man have disappeared, along with her clothes.
As Sara begins the trek on foot, dressed only in her swimsuit, a group of boys in a passing car hurl verbal insults her direction. We never hear a word from Sara, but her facial and physical reactions tell us all we need to know - she's been through this before and shows the pain, anger, and embarrassment. As she progresses on her walk home, she comes across the man in the truck. We are reminded of two sayings: Payback is h**", and Karma is a b****.
Greetings again from the darkness. Bullying generates insecurity, hatred, and fear. The definition of bullying can range from calling someone a derogatory name, verbally abusing them, physically intimidating them, or causing actual physical pain. It's an abuse of power that can happen at any age and in any environment. Los Angeles-based Canadian musician Andrew Cole set out a few years ago to create an all-star anti-bullying song ... something similar to what "We are the World" did for the starving people in Africa in 1985.
Mr. Cole spends much of the film's run time on camera, and he explains his motivation for starting the project. He attended approximately 20 schools and was often the "weird" kid or "newbie", and he believes that made him an easy target. Part of his project involves trying to track down Paul Blades, a particularly evil bully he recalls. Cole also explains how his own Dad could flip a switch from being a great guy to a terrifying presence. He refers to these memories as scar tissue. It's at this point when we begin to question whether Cole's project is for the greater good, or simply for his own therapy.
Some time is spent on his efforts to convince celebrities and famous musicians to jump on board. Mr. Cole mostly seems to be winging it during the early phases, almost like he expects people to jump at the chance to work with an unknown musician with no foundation or charity backing him. Cole even goes so far as to label this as a form of bullying ... celebs using their power to shut down the little guy with a dream. Doors do begin to open, once Jeff Goldblum agrees to play piano on the song.
Documentarian Manfred Becker is charged with turning years of footage into something coherent for viewers. Unfortunately, rather than focusing on the topic, there are segments included that appear to be there for no reason other than Cole's ego. Specifically, a stunt at the front gate of Chateau Marmont and a ride-along with the paparazzi as they chase Harrison Ford down the street. The big news is apparently that Harrison Ford is caught texting while driving. The film is at its best when Cole is not talking, but rather letting others have their say. Watching Jane Lynch, Patrick Stewart and Michael Biehn admit to having been bullies in their younger years is powerful. Visiting Columbine High School and "the world's worst parent", Lenore Skenazy, is fascinating and insightful.
We are informed that 50% of youth suicides are related to bullying. Of course bullying has been a topic for generations, and it's a topic that needs to remain in the forefront. Unfortunately, having a great idea, a great cause, or even a great song doesn't ensure a great documentary. More research into the mentioned connection between bullying-hate crime- genocide could have elevated this look at the complex issue of the psychology of bullying. "Hurt people hurt people" (spoken by Russell Simmons) provides more insight than clips of Slash strumming a guitar. Hate, guilt, and forgiveness all play a role here and deserve more than a quick mention. Hopefully the film and Cole's song, "Do You Think I'm a Joke?" can make a difference for the Center for Abuse Awareness.
Neil in action
Greetings again from the darkness. A trip to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado takes us more than 1.5 miles above sea level (8750 ft) to the Studio in the Clouds. It's here where Neil Young and the band Crazy Horse have gathered to record yet another album in what has been a 50 year (off-and-on) musical relationship. It's a rare opportunity to watch a band work out the finer points of their songs while in the studio.
Between deep hits from their oxygen tanks, these four musicians and producer John Hanlon deal with multiple takes, re-writes, and technical glitches. Sometimes the mood is quite tense, and other times quite laid back. Mr. Hanlon is suffering from a case of poison oak at the time of recording, making for a stressful environment when Neil Young scolds him for too much feedback, or not enough volume, or some other irritant that is likely related to as much to the artist's general frustration with creating as it is to the antiquated wiring of the studio.
In addition to the expected guitar, piano, bass, and drums, an impressive array of instruments are utilized. Also in play here are: a pump organ, harpsichord, glass harmonica (very cool), and a xylophone. We even get to see Nils Lofgren tap dancing! Many will recognize Nils as a long-time member of Bruce Springsteen's The E Street Band. Lofgren's ability to keep Crazy Horse in step with Neil Young is underplayed here, yet still quite obvious.
"It doesn't have to be good. It's going to be great." This is a line uttered as the band hears the playback on a particular song. It drives home the importance musicians put on performing, and perfectly complements what we see from Neil Young - love and commitment to the music. He's still the amazing songwriter and rebel who wrote "Ohio" in a just a few minutes after seeing the photos from the Kent State tragedy in 1970. This current album proves his songs of societal awareness are not a fad, but rather a belief system.
The documentary is "In memory of Elliot Roberts, the greatest manager of all-time." Mr. Roberts died in June of this year, and in addition to being Neil Young's long-time manager, he also managed the careers of Joni Mitchell, Tom Petty, and The Cars. A driving force behind the music phenomenon from Laurel Canyon in the 1960's and 70's, Mr. Roberts was a very popular and talented figure in the music industry. Although the vast majority of the film takes place inside the studio, we do get a few clips from Neil Young performing songs live, and periodic shots outside - mountains, sky, and clouds. With this being billed as 'a film by Bernard Shakey and DH LoveLife, it should be no surprise that the real folks behind those names are Neil Young and his long-time partner, actress Darryl Hannah. The film may not be an extraordinary work of art itself, but it's very interesting to see one of the most successful and dedicated musicians of the past 50 years hard at work, doing what he does.
The Lighthouse (2019)
Wickies on the rock
Greetings again from the darkness. The opening sequence plays like something from 1920's era cinema. The chug-chug-chug of a boat slamming against the waves of an angry sea while birds flap and chirp alongside. We hear the wind and "feel" the severe ocean spray. Several minutes elapse before any word is spoken. Immediately noticeable is the nearly square aspect ratio ... the rarely (these days) seen 1.19:1 frame, making the black and white images appear both surreal and ominous.
All of the above makes perfect sense when we realize this is writer-director Robert Eggers' first feature film since his 2015 indie horror gem THE WITCH won dozens of festival awards. Mr. Eggers obviously has his own vision for projects, and his approach borders on experimental, eschewing conventional. He co-wrote this script with his brother Max, and evidently much was drawn from the actual journals of lighthouse keepers ... something that is evident in the vocabulary and the effects of solitude.
4-time Oscar nominee Willem Dafoe stars alongside Robert Pattison as the two men charged with a 4 week assignment of tending to a lighthouse. The film is set in 1890, and Dafoe plays Thomas Wake, the epitome of a salty old sea dog, replete with bad leg, hardcore Atlantic accent, and upside down pipe. Pattinson is Ephraim Winslow, the assistant Wickie, who faces non-stop demands from Wake, and initially maintains a quietness as he goes about his duties ... what Wake calls the 'doldrums.' We learn little about either man's past. For Wake, other than knowing his previous assistant went mad, the clue is when he mentions "13 Christmases spent at sea" costing him a family. For Ephraim, when Wake asks, "Tell me what's a timberman want with being a Wickie?" we get some insight into Ephraim's desired future.
Eggers has delivered the anti-buddy movie. It's a bleak, slow-motion race to insanity caused by being isolated with only one other person ... a person you aren't fond of. Only this is not a director or a film content with showing two men stuck on a storm-battered rock, as they slip towards insanity. No, we viewers are forced to experience some of these same feelings - how much of what we see is actually happening? It's mesmerizing and hypnotic, and the above-mentioned narrow screen aspect purposefully emphasizes the sense of confinement and claustrophobia.
With no color and only a couple of characters ... OK, 3 if you count the mermaid ...OK, 4 if you count the seagull ... the film still manages to pound us with sensory overload. We can barely process all we are seeing, despite relatively minimal 'typical' action. The black and white images are mostly just various shades of gray, and sunshine is non-existent. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (THE WITCH) embraces the dreariness by allowing the fog, lanterns, candles, wind, rain, and harsh elements to become characters unto themselves. However, nothing is in sync with our two leads. Composer Mark Korven fills the many lapses in dialogue with sounds and tones we haven't heard before, yet they fit perfectly here. This is also quite likely the first film to utilize farts and foghorns in harmony.
Director Eggers filmed this on Cape Forchu in Nova Scotia, and the extreme weather and less-than-welcoming terrain create quite the visuals - as do the faces of our two lead actors. Dafoe may never have chewed scenery so delightfully as he does here, and Pattinson starts slowly before delivering his best work - including a ferocious rant that is fascinating to watch and contrast to his character's first meal with Dafoe. Is this a horror film? A fantasy? Macabre comedy? There is simply no way to describe this other than bizarre. It's truly miserable cinema, and I loved every minute of it.
everything is art
Greetings again from the darkness. 31 years old. It's an age that can feel old while in fact, it's so young. Certainly too young for a diagnosis of breast cancer - not that there is ever a right age for such news. New York City-based French artist Prune Nourry was 31 when she was hit with the breast cancer diagnosis, and she turned her journey into a book, published in 2017, and subsequently this blend of art film and personal video journal.
The film opens with the camera on a hospital gurney as it is wheeled through various hallways and into examination rooms. It's Ms. Nourry's way of having us join her on her trip through the medical maze. One of the unique aspects of the film is how she connects her current situation to some of her past works. When she learns that she must freeze her eggs for future use before her chemotherapy sessions begin, she ties that into her 2009 art project entitled "The Procreation Dinner", where the steps of In vitro fertilization are presented in food form ... through birth and finishing with a flan breast feeding dessert. It's at this time where she shows us her eggs magnified under the microscope lens. We now better understand the artist and her way of dealing.
With a mastectomy as first step, Ms. Nourry meets up with Oscar nominated French director Agnes Varda (FACES PLACES, 2017). Ms. Varda passed away earlier this year, but here she assists Ms. Nourry with cutting off 15-18 inches of her beautiful and braided hair so that it can be donated prior to her chemo. The film takes us through the treatment process, which includes the psychological impact of having one's body altered so drastically. Is the challenge more physical or mental? We can only know that each person reacts in their own way.
Known as a sculptor, much of Ms. Nourry's work can be considered performance, or even participatory. With work often related to the female body and female rights, other pieces of her work included here are "Sperm Bank" (2011), "Holy Daughters" (2010-11), "Holy River" (2011-12), "Imbalance" (2014, also a short film), "Terra Cotta Daughters" (to be unearthed in 2030), and "The Amazon" (2018).
Executive Producers of the film include Angelina Jolie and Darren Aronofsky, and while shaving her own head, Prune Nourry shares her philosophy of life that "everything is connected." With the film documenting much of her art work, she emphasizes that this life philosophy focuses on Health, Life, and Art ... just like her film.
Dolor y gloria (2019)
Almodovar and Banderas better than ever
Greetings again from the darkness. This marks the 13th Pedro Almodovar movie I've seen over the last 33 years. There is no logical explanation for why I feel connected to his movies. It seems obvious I have very little in common with the provocative filmmaker from Spain who won an Oscar for his extraordinary 2002 film HABLA CON ELLA (TALK TO HER). Yet, his movies invariably strike an emotional chord with me - and none more so than his latest.
As with many of his previous films (and more than most), this one has a strong semi-autobiographical feel to it. Antonio Banderas stars as aging filmmaker Salvador Mallo. No other actor could have been cast in the role. This is, by my count, the eighth collaboration between actor and director ... no actor has a better feel for Almodovar over the past three decades. It must be noted that Banderas does not stoop to impersonation or mimicry. OK, he has similar spiked hair, beard, fancy clothes and a museum-quality house ... but the performance is all Banderas, and it's a thing of beauty. Salvador is an aged man who looks defeated despite numerous career achievements. His physical pains are many - chronic back pain, migraines, sporadic choking - but it's his emotional isolation and solitude that stands out. Salvador is a lonely man with signs of depression.
The film bounces between two time periods: Salvador as an older man with the above listed struggles, and young Salvador (Asier Flores) growing up in poverty with his mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz) and dreaming of a better life. The elder Salvador is reflecting on the life journey that brought him to this point, while the younger Salvador is filled with youthful hope for the future, even as his core being is taking shape.
Cinemateque has remastered Salvador's first big movie "Sabor" and have invited him to attend the screening and participate in the Q&A. He sees this as a chance to re-connect with the film's star (and his long ago friend) Alberto Crespo (played by Asier Etxeandia). The two haven't spoken in over 30 years due to bad blood and artistic differences during the filming of "Sabor". Now understanding Alberto's approach to the role, Salvador is told by an actress that 'the movie hasn't changed, but the eyes you see it through have'. Salvador visits Alberto and soon the actor is sharing his heroin stash with his director. Salvador continues "chasing the dragon" as a form of relief from his physical pain, and as an escape from his solitude. It seems to work much better than his cocktail of prescription drugs.
Rather than a film of drug addiction, this is a film of reflection. Fellini's 81/2 (1963) is surely the most famous and iconic of the autobiographical films by a director, and though Fellini may have the advantage of esoteric artistry, Almodovar's signature style is ever-present through primary colors (especially red) and memorable sets. Deserving of special mention are frequent Almodovar collaborators Antxion Gomez (Production Design), Maria Clara Notari (Art Direction), Paola Torres (Costume Design), and cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine. The music is provided by 3-time Oscar nominee Alberto Iglesias.
There are some intimate and touching scenes in the film, as well as a couple of lines of dialogue that hit pretty hard. Circumstances are such that Salvador reunites with Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), the love of his life. It's a tender reunion that lasts only a short time, but allows for needed closure for both men. There is also a sequence where Salvador is having a heartfelt and intimate conversation with his elderly mother (Julieta Serrano). She tells him he was not a good son. This conversation between adult son and mother is an example of things that should be said, but rarely are. Ms. Serrano previously played Mr. Banderas' mother in WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN and MATADOR.
Almodovar's movie premiered at Cannes, and it examines our expectations for life and how they contrast to our later recollections. The two timelines show one looking forward as the stage is set, and the other looking back at both the good times and bad. For an artist, it's the life that molds their influences for their art/craft. Salvador's memories even play like short movies. There may be no real plot to the film, and instead it focuses on reflection, introspection and perspective. "Love can't cure the ones we love" is a gut-punch of a line, and one that can't be comprehended until late in life. For an Almodovar film, this one is restrained and tempered - even tender at times. And yet despite this, it will stick with me for awhile.
Fantastic Fungi (2019)
interesting, informative, entertaining
Greetings again from the darkness. Why did the mushroom get invited to the party? Because he's a fun guy (fungi)! That joke works better when spoken rather than read, but it made me laugh as a kid, even though it wasn't enough to keep me (and half my classmates) awake during those dull science films in junior high. Documentarian Louie Schwartzberg obviously stayed awake in class, and now he's showing us how those films should be made ... interesting, informative and entertaining.
"We brought life to Earth. You can't see us. We are mushrooms!" Narrator Brie Larson (yes, Captain Marvel herself) introduces fungus, or more accurately, fungi ... since we are told there are 1.5 million species - 20,000 of which produce mushrooms. Despite the presence of Ms. Larson, this isn't a superhero movie. No, it's much more important. In fact, the real star of the documentary - other than fungi - is an amateur mycologist named Paul Stamets. That's right, this informative project devotes much of its time to some guy who just likes science (oh my, does he like it); specifically, the study of fungus and mushrooms. He even tells us some of his personal story, allowing us to connect with a guy who is proud to be known as a mushroom nerd.
Director Schwartzberg is an accomplished documentarian, and noted time-lapse photographer and visual artist. He even uses impressive digital animation periodically to guide us along. He's also smart enough to complement Mr. Stamets' observations with input from real life scientists, as well as authors and researchers. Admittedly, it's not really fair to classify Stamets as an amateur. He has written books and his research has been invaluable to some of the world's foremost experts.
You may wonder why you should care about fungi. Heck, it's described as something between vegetable and animal. We hear that it's been around since the beginning, and that it plays a role in rebirth, reincarnation, and regeneration. This is shown via a memorable time-lapse segment, and with the bold proclamation that Mycelium is "the mother of us all." We learn how fungi is such a vital part of our existence through medical research, penicillin (and chees), antibiotics, bio-terrorism, psychedelics, and now even the treatment of depression and cancer. Fungi can feed you (it's good on pizza), heal you, and even kill you. The film is quite a fascinating and educational treat ... and a lesson in biological resilience. And I never once fell asleep - my junior high teacher wouldn't believe it.
Gemini Man (2019)
we still need actors
Greetings again from the darkness. Usually after watching a movie, I spend some time thinking about the story, the performances, the visual effects, the music, the sets, the costumes, and any other piece of the puzzle that makes up that particular movie going experience. However, Oscar winning director Ang Lee's (BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, LIFE OF PI) new film creates a challenge. In addition to those previously mentioned factors, the ground-breaking new technology must also be addressed - both separately and in conjunction with how it works in the movie.
If you've seen the trailer, or even the poster, you know that there is an "old" Will Smith and a "young" Will Smith. The basic story is that Henry Brogan (old Will Smith) is a retiring DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) assassin who is being hunted by his own government. The one doing the hunting is Junior, a "young" clone of Henry Brogan. What you may not know is that this is not accomplished through the typical de-aging process that has become so popular in Hollywood. Nope, this Junior is actually digital animation from Weta Digital in New Zealand. It's not even really Will Smith - it's a digital creation that looks almost identical to the Will Smith from "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" (1990-96), minus the wide grin and funky clothes. It's very impressive technology, but not yet to the point where it can replace living, breathing, emoting actors. However, it's pretty obvious that day is coming.
What's also obvious is that this script is a mess, and despite the new generation of technology, this film seems dated ... well at least the story seems that way. Darren Lemke (SHAZAM!) first published the screenplay in the mid-1990's and it has "almost" made it to production on a few occasions. Writers David Benioff (THE KITE RUNNER) and Billy Ray (CAPTAIN PHILLIPS) are credited on this final, mostly disappointing version. The dialogue is lame and character development is non-existent. We are never provided a reason to give a hoot about old Henry. Junior is never more than a video game creation. And DIA Agent Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) seems to be an afterthought when someone realized the film needed a female presence. Clive Owen plays Clay Verris, the mastermind/mad scientist with little more than a scowl, though Benedict Wong brings a jolt of life to his Baron role as a pilot friend of Henry.
We do get to see some of the world. The initial sequence takes us on Henry's final mission. It's his 72nd kill, and it occurs from a grassy knoll in Belgium through a window on a bullet train going 228 mph. Henry heads back to his isolated lake cabin in Buttermilk Sound, Georgia where his peaceful retirement lasts about 3 scenes. Soon, we are headed to Columbia for a crazy motorcycle chase, and then on to the catacombs in Budapest - an idea that provides a welcome dose of inspiration.
High-speed parkour, blurry close-up fight scenes, rooftop shootouts, and a hyper motorcycle chase through town all have an air of familiarity, which is something this type of film should strive to avoid. Rian Johnson's LOOPER toyed with us using a young and old version of the same character, and though that was time travel and not cloning, the ideas are too similar for this one to come across as unique. Oscar winning cinematographer Dion Beebe (MEMORIES OF A GEISHA) delivers the shots - down to the crystal clear logos on beer and soda - but we never really experience the thrill that new technology should deliver. It should also be noted that no theatre in America is equipped to show this in the way Ang Lee filmed it: 4K 3D 120fps HFR format ... leaving us wondering, what's the point?
Lucy in the Sky (2019)
fly me to the moon - to get away from this movie
Greetings again from the darkness. 'Space - the final frontier.' Well, that wasn't the case for real life astronaut Lisa Nowak. In 2007, Nowak made the national news for her cross-country, diaper-wearing road trip that ended with her being arrested in Orlando for attempted kidnapping. Nowak had been a Navy pilot and conducted spacewalks as an astronaut. She had been married and divorced from a NASA contractor, and the purpose of her long drive to Orlando was to kidnap the astronaut she had an affair with and the astronaut that she had been dumped for by that astronaut (the other one she was kidnapping). Noah Hawley's feature film directorial debut is "inspired by true events", and about the only thing missing is those diapers.
OK, that's not the only thing. Also missing are a coherent story, believable dialogue, a realistic Texas accent, a competent psychologist, and an inspiring story of girl power. Natalie Portman plays Lucy Cola, and the film opens with her being filled with awe during a spacewalk that will forever make life on Earth seem small ... even while her dreadful accent (with San Angelo gun joke) tortures the ears of every viewer. Jon Hamm co-stars as astronaut Mark Goodwin, the "action-figure" prize in the eyes of Lucy. This despite Lucy's cheery, stable and very grounded husband Drew (Dan Stevens), who works in NASA Public Relations. Playing the 4th wheel in what should have been two separate two-wheelers is astronaut Erin Eccles (an underutilized Zazie Beetz). Thankfully, Ellen Burstyn is around to inject some raunchy old woman humor and life lessons as Lucy's Nana. For no apparent reason, other than possibly in hopes of attracting a younger audience, Pearl Amanda Dixon plays Iris, Lucy's teenage niece. Iris spends most of the movie casting confused looks at her famous aunt, wondering why Nana told her to take any advice from Lucy.
Noah Hawley is best known for his excellent TV work with "Fargo", and here is credited as co-writer with Brian C Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi. It's the first feature film for all three and it shows. There are some interesting ideas and approaches, but most of the stylistic attempts are just too much: the non-stop shifting of aspect ratios, the by design blurring (out of focus) images, and the Malick-type edits early on, are all more distracting than artistic.
There are some intriguing bits to Lucy's character. She's a woman in a field dominated by Type A men, and she matches or exceeds all in determination, grit and expertise. It's only after she is "star struck" that she begins her descent into mental and emotional instability. As she loses herself, there is a scene where Hamm's Goodwin is watching the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy over and over. That scene probably offers more insight into being an astronaut than most anything we see from Lucy. As for the finale, it's a rain-soaked mess, and perhaps drives home the point that the filmmakers were handcuffed by a true life story that was simply too bizarre to work as a movie ... especially since they left out the diapers.