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Red Joan (2018)
side note to history
Greetings again from the darkness. Sir Trevor Nunn is a Tony Award winner best known for his stage productions, and for being director of the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1968 through 1986. The film is "inspired by a true story", and Lindsay Shapero has adapted Jennie Rooney's 2013 novel, which was a blend of history and fiction taken from the life of Melita Norwood ... the longest serving British KGB spy.
Dame Judi Dench plays Joan Stanley (the movie version of the aforementioned Ms. Norwood) whom we first meet as she is being arrested for treason by MI5 agents in May 2000. Most of the film consists of Joan being interrogated while having flashbacks to her earlier life, beginning in 1938 at Cambridge University. She was a hard-working nose-to-the grindstone Physics student who is drawn in to the fascinating world of Sonja (Tereza Srbova) and her brother Leo (Tom Hughes), who are supporters of the Soviet party. In the flashback scenes, young Joan is played by Sophie Cookson (who reminds of a young Faye Dunaway).
The film spends most of its time in flashback mode, and Ms. Cookson excels as the idealistic Joan first in her scenes with Sonja and Leo, and later with Stephen Campbell Moore who plays Professor Max Davies. Joan is recruited to work in the lab with Davies, as the secretly work to create the Atom bomb. It's Sonja and Leo who coerce Joan into passing along secret documents that allow Stalin's Russia to keep pace on bomb development. She easily flies under the radar since, as Sonja tells her, "Nobody would suspect us. We are women."
From a historical perspective, the film kind of falls flat. It also doesn't qualify as a British spy thriller since there are really no thrills to be found. "The Americans" TV show was infinitely better at the spy genre than this one; however, if the film works on any level, it's as moral debate fodder. Joan clearly has her reasons for doing what she thought was right ... leveling the playing field between super powers, so that none had an advantage. The question is, what is right and who is to decide? During this time, alliances were quite fluid between Russia, Britain and the United States, and she believed her actions saved lives.
Dame Judi is really not on screen much, and when she is, there's little for her to do except play innocent and dream of years gone by. She was labeled "Granny spy", and though her story is interesting, and does provide yet another aspect from WWII, the film itself never really grabs us as viewers. The early periods are well filmed with beautiful costumes and sets, but we are never as dumbstruck as Joan's son (Ben Miles) when he admits he thought his mum was merely an over-educated librarian. As a character study, there's something here ... but as entertainment, it's a bit lacking.
a trailblazer gets her due
Greetings again from the darkness. History can easily be distorted by those who tell it. But the work and deeds of those who make history stands the test of time, and research can often right a wrong ... or at least provide credit where it's due. Such is the case with Pamela B Greene's project to uncover the truth, and finally give pioneer filmmaker Alice Guy-Blache her rightful place in the history of cinema.
Numerous familiar faces from the movie industry flash across the screen, and most admit they have never heard of Alice Guy-Blache. Even the few that recognize the name, don't know her story. This is how the movie starts ... letting off the hook those of us who pride ourselves on knowing the basics of cinema's origins. In 1895, the Lumiere Brothers presented the first short films on their newly developed Cinematographe. In the audience that day were Leon Gaumont and his assistant, Alice Guy.
Young Ms. Guy had a creative vision for this fascinating new technology. Rather than filming "real life", she would tell stories. And telling stories through moving pictures is exactly what she did more than 1000 times across two decades and two countries. In 1896, she directed THE CABBAGE FAIRY, one of the first narrative films ... and it was only the beginning for her. Director Greene explains that so many of those early films are lost, despite being described as sophisticated, emotional, and engaging works. As she moved from France to the United States (New Jersey), Alice founded Solax with her husband, and began experimenting with sound, special effects, gender roles, and story structure.
It's truly fascinating to see the clips from many of her films, along with snippets from interviews she sat for in 1964 (before passing away in 1968). Director Greene also includes interviews from Alice's daughter Simone, while I believe are from the 1980's. Simone is able to fill in some of the gaps in the historical timeline ... a timeline that includes many familiar names. It's also a timeline that results in an abrupt end to Alice's filmmaking when she relocates back to France after the war.
How did Alice Guy-Blache get lost in history? She was a contemporary of Melies, Lumiere and the Pathe brothers. She was not just the first woman director, she was also one of the first film directors, period. Though the search continues for many of her films, Oscar winning actress Jodie Foster narrates the mission of filmmaker Pamela B Greene to right a wrong ... Alice must no longer be forgotten by the industry she helped create.
Remember the Alamo!?
Greetings again from the darkness. The film opens with a title card informing us that it is "based on an absurd but true story". In 1973 the Kreditbanken of Stockholm Sweden was held up by an armed man. The ordeal was unusual for low-crime Sweden and it was broadcast live on TV. It has also been credited as being the origin for the term "Stockholm Syndrome" - a term to describe the bonding that sometimes occurs between a hostage and their captor.
Writer-director Robert Budreau wisely wastes little time with setting the stage. Lars (Ethan Hawke) dons a disguise meant to trick the police, and storms the bank lobby armed with a sub-machine gun. Wearing a cowboy hat and a leather jacket with a Texas flag, he proclaims "Remember the Alamo" as he secures some hostages and presents himself as Kaj Hansson, a well-known criminal. Of course, Mr. Hawke is certainly an American, and the actual robbery/hostage event was conducted by a Swede.
Lars is loud and boisterous to the cops, while simultaneously being sympathetic and understanding to the hostages - especially Bianca (Noomi Rapace), a married woman with two kids. Christopher Heyerdahl plays Police Chief Mattison, and he employs some unexpected psychological gamesmanship with Lars that gets even more convoluted when Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme becomes involved. Lars' real goal here is to spring his buddy Gunnar Sorensson (Mark Strong) from jail and have them both ride off to freedom in a mustang like the one Steve McQueen drove in BULLITT.
Yes, I should mention that although guns are fired and hostages are held, this is really an offbeat comedic bank heist. It focuses on how the hostages bond with their captors and how Bianca quickly realizes that not only is she smarter than Lars and Gunnar, but that the cops are more of a threat to her than the criminals. She strategizes better than either side, and Ms. Rapace (from the original Millennium Trilogy) is the standout performer in the film.
Filmmaker Budreau and Mr. Hawke previously collaborated on an intimate look at jazz trumpeter Chet Baker in BORN TO BE BLUE (2015), and they prove again that they work well together. The other two hostages are played by Bea Santos as Clara and Mark Rendall as Elov. When Prime Minister Palme refuses to negotiate or allow Lars to leave with hostages, we can sense the emotional tide turn as Clara, Elov and Bianca realize they are safest remaining with the hostages.
Of course there are some liberties with history taken for cinematic reasons, and since most of the filming takes place within the confines of the bank, we do get to know each of the participants pretty well. The similarities to Sidney Lumet's DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975) are unmistakable, and one of the reporters covering the story even comments that it's "almost like watching an American movie." The odd ending works for the film, and thanks to Ms. Rapace, there is enough heft to the characters to prevent the humor for taking over.
tough to watch, fascinating to look at
Greetings again from the darkness. Hungarian filmmaker Laszlo Nemes mesmerized us with his first feature film, SON OF SAUL (2015), the Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film. That debut was an incredibly unique viewing experience centered on the Holocaust at Auschwitz. Mr. Nemes got much of the band back together for this follow up, and their collaboration, while a bit frustrating to watch, is again quite fascinating to look at.
Mr. Nemes co-wrote the script with his SON OF SAUL writing partners Clara Royer and Matthieu Taponier (also the film's editor). And for those that share my frustration in watching the film, it's the story that is likely to blame. Is there a story? Certainly not in the traditional sense - which makes it difficult to follow or try to explain. Irisz Leiter (played by Juli Jakab) is first seen being fitted for fine hats in the elegant shop that bears her family name. We soon learn her parents both died, and she has been absent from the city for many years. The new owner, Oszkar Brill (Vlad Ivanov, 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS, 2007) is startled to learn of Irisz's return, though we aren't sure why he is so uncomfortable around her. Irisz soon discovers she has a brother (a surprise to her) and that he is quite notorious in these parts.
Much of the film focuses on Irisz trying to track down her brother, and then track him down again. That's the closest thing to a plot we get. Mostly it's a succession of scenes where people ask questions that never get answered. In fact, there is minimal dialogue to go with the now-familiar camera work of cinematographer Matyas Erdely who utilizes his SON OF SAUL first person perspective with background fuzzed out so that we see what one person is seeing. There is an underlying theme of what is apparently a corrupt part of a mysterious sub-culture in the society - even involving the Royal family. Keep in mind this is 1913 Budapest and war is at hand.
The set design and costume design are extraordinary ... especially the lavish hats from the era. The score is from Laszlo Melis (also from SON OF SAUL), and while Ms. Jakab is pleasant to look at, the story is disorienting and unfulfilling. The approach with the camera work is designed to force us to see things through the characters' eyes, but it's not enough to offset the incoherent and aimless wanderings of Irisz as she collects scraps of information that may or may not be pertinent. Perhaps you are smarter than I am, and will be able to connect the dots ... or at least find dots to work with.
We Are Columbine (2018)
Greetings again from the darkness. A great many things changed on April 20, 1999. The "Columbine Massacre", a school shooting (and pipe bombs) that resulted in many deaths and injuries, and subsequent copycats, was broadcast live on television for the world to witness. Laura Farber was a freshman at Columbine High School that fateful day, and now, almost 20 years later, she's a filmmaker taking a look at the fallout from such a traumatic event.
Rather than document the progression of events - something that's already been done numerous times - Ms. Farber enlists four of her former classmates, plus a teacher and the school principal to discuss their memories of the day, and more importantly, the impact it has had on their lives since. Gus was the pot smoking slacker. Jaimi was an athlete whose big sister also attended the school. Amy was a cheerleader and social type, and Zach was a studious soccer player. Mr. Zeyba was a first year teacher at the time, and Mr. DeAngelis ("Mr. De") was the school principal. None are especially anxious to revisit those memories, and without the trust they have for Ms. Farber, they probably wouldn't.
With filming set up at an otherwise unoccupied Columbine High School, each of the participants walks us through where they were that day (cafeteria, classroom, etc) and how they remember things unfolding. News clips and a 911 call from that day are replayed, but filmmaker Farber wisely decides against showing the shooters or even mentioning their names. This is about the survivors and as difficult as the conversations are, we get the feeling it's a cathartic exercise for them. We are stunned to hear that they have spoken very little of that day, even to each other or other classmates. There is an "understanding".
This is a very intimate and personal look at how an unbelievably traumatic event can alter the life path of a person. Gus now expresses himself through his rap music. Jaimi is a nurse who values her time with her wife and kids. Amy is a social worker, and Zach is now a teacher at Columbine High School. Mr. Zeyba continues to teach and Mr. DeAngelis continued on as school principal ... after testing numerous fire alarm signals to prevent flashbacks. Each is giving back in their own way after experiencing something most of us can barely imagine. It may not be a traditionally informative documentary, but it's one that brings us as close as possible to what the survivors feel.
The Best of Enemies (2019)
a feel good look at a moment in history
Greetings again from the darkness. It's easy to complain (and many do) about how Hollywood usually explores racism. Sometimes the stories seem a bit over-simplistic, as with THE HELP, GREEN BOOK, and HIDDEN FIGURES; however, rather than criticize, perhaps we should be thankful for any effort to prod. Often getting the conversation started is the best first step. That's really the message from Robin Bissell's directorial debut of a script he adapted from Osha Gray Davidson's 1996 book "The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South". Mr. Bissell has previously been Executive Producer on THE HUNGER GAMES and SEABISCUIT, and Mr. Davidson's book was previously adapted for a stage production.
Based on a true story that took place in 1971 Durham, North Carolina, the film portrays the remarkable events that led to the integration of public schools and a stranger-than-fiction friendship. Taraji P Henson stars as Ann Atwater, an African-American activist and community organizer, while Sam Rockwell co-stars as Claiborne "CP" Ellis, the Exalted Cyclops (basically the Chapter President) of the Ku Klux Klan. It seems the previous stranger-than-fiction description is aptly applied here when an aggressive black woman known as "Roughhouse Annie" can effectively sway the long ingrained beliefs of a KKK leader, and forge a friendship that would last 3 decades.
A school fire that partially gutted the elementary school attended by the black children in the community was the proverbial spark that kicked off the chain of events. When the white folks refused to share their school, the black children were forced to hold classes in the areas least affected by the fire ... while demolition and renovation was being carried out. This led to the NAACP getting involved, which resulted in a judge ordering a "Charrette" - a blend of a committee and a civic debate - to determine how the community would move forward. Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay, FREE FIRE, 2016) was charged with organizing the Charrette, and he named Ms. Alexander and Mr. Ellis as co-chairs. Keep in mind this was 17 years after Brown vs. Board of Education ruled in favor of school desegregation, but many pockets of the south were slow to come around.
The story structure offers synchronicity between the lives of Alexander and Ellis, as they each struggle with poverty and family challenges. It's just one of the ways of trying to show they were more alike than different, and much more of the time is devoted to how the transition slowly occurs for Ellis. Of course, even though each side dislikes the other, it's Ellis whose eyes must be opened as he clings to the only way of life he's known. Because of this, Mr. Rockwell has the meatier role, but it's Ms. Henson (and her fat suit) who draws the most laughs and nods of approval from the audience.
As you would expect, it's a strutting Mr. Rockwell and boisterous Ms. Henson that dominate the film, however, some tremendous actors fill the supporting roles: Wes Bentley (as a Confederate soldier hat-wearing Klansman), Anne Heche (as Ellis' wife), Nick Searcy, Bruce McGill, John Gallagher Jr, and Caitlin Mehner.
The film is a most entertaining (though a bit lightweight) look at an historic chain of events, and it's right up there with a black cop infiltrating the Klan in Spike Lee's 2018 film BLACKkKlansman for believe-it-or-not points. In 1980, Studs Terkel conducted an interview with Mr. Ellis, and it's worth a read to gain a bit more insight into a man that truly changed his evil ways. The ending of this film leans heavily on the "feel-good" and "can't we all just get along" approach, and maybe that's not such a bad thing. The end credit sequence features some tremendous clips of the real Ms. Alexander (who died in 2016) and Mr. Ellis (who died in 2005), making it a bit easier to understand how the two opposites connected for the greater good.
Peele is 2 for 2
Greetings again from the darkness. Jordan Peele first got noticed on "MADtv," and then for his impersonation of Barack Obama. His career got a boost with "Key and Peele" with Keegan-Michael Key, and then it simply exploded in 2018 with GET OUT. For that film, he won his first Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and was also nominated for Best Director (his directorial debut) and for Best Picture (as a Producer). With his follow-up to that breakout film, Mr. Peele has squashed any talk of being a one-hit wonder, and has actually elevated his work with this latest.
The film opens in 1986 as a family is on vacation at Santa Cruz, California. While taking in the amusement park along the boardwalk, their young daughter Adelaide wanders off into a house of mirrors where she comes face to face with her doppelgänger - her exact lookalike. It's the film's first creepy moment, but certainly not the last. The story then jumps forward to present day where Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o, Oscar winner for 12 YEARS A SLAVE), her husband Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke, BLACK PANTHER), and their teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and young son Jason (Evan Alex) are on a getaway to a lake house ... one located near their friends Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty Tyler (Elisabeth Moss), and their in sync twin daughters (Cali and Noelle Sheldon). Adelaide is not thrilled when husband Gabe suggests they head over to Santa Cruz beach.
Part of the brilliance of the film is that it works as a straight-forward horror film with some very funny moments (often thanks to Mr. Duke), but its real purpose is to inspire multiple theories along with the corresponding debate. Alternate meanings, metaphors and clues are dropped in most every scene. A toy ambulance, a JAWS shirt, a "Thriller" shirt, a TV commercial for the "Hands Across America" event, and the corresponding VHS tapes next to the family TV only hint at the numerous nods Peele serves up to other films, especially some horror classics. You'll note the director chooses an aerial shot not dissimilar to that of Kubrick's THE SHINING as the family drives towards their vacation spot. Also present (in a couple of scenes) is the reference to bible verse Jeremiah 11:11, and sharp-eyed viewers will spot other references to the double 11.
While the Wilson and Tyler families are visiting on the sandy beach, young Jason wanders off sending mother Adelaide into a near-frenzy with recollections of her night on that same beach so many years ago. Later that evening, the true horror begins. A terrific shot of 4 figures all clad in red at the end of the Wilson's driveway kicks the film into high gear. More doppelgangers appear and lead us to a subterranean community living in tunnels, and sharing the space with bunnies. We learn of "the tethered"; those who are (mostly) identical to those living above. Those of identical likeness square off in the ongoing battle for survival, and that's really all you should know before seeing for yourself.
The cast is terrific, especially Ms. Nyong'o, who like the other actors seems to relish playing the dual roles. She also nails the final shot with a smile that will chill you to the marrow. Madison Curry makes a strong impression as young Adelaide, and as much fun as we have with the characters, the true joy lies in trying to "catch" all that filmmaker Peele throws at us. That final wall of folks in red is pretty easy to decipher, but some of the little clues and prods require a second viewing. It's fascinating and historic that Jordan Peele's follow up movie could possibly make this yet another horror movie contending at Oscar time. If you are up for a fun little horror movie that's also a mind-bending societal commentary on those who are born into privilege and those who aren't, then Mr. Peele has just the flick for you.
Greetings again from the darkness. In a film that is both grounded in realism as well as playing like an ode to underappreciated character actresses, our wonderment turns to full comprehension once we realize this is the work of Kent Jones. Mr. Jones is one of today's foremost authorities on film, having been a respected film critic, served as director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and delivered a tremendous documentary showcasing the conversations of two more publicized film experts with 2005's HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT. In other words, he's a man who loves cinema and has both a trained eye and an instinct for what makes a film worth watching.
Mary Kay Place (THE BIG CHILL, 1983) is Diane. Our first reaction upon seeing her is that she has the well-worn, hangdog look of a woman burdened by life. As we follow her around, we soon learn that's very true and that there is even more to her story. Diane is the kind of person who, rather than keep a list of things to do, keeps a list of people for whom she has to do things. And there are many on her list. Chief among these are her dying cousin Donna (Diedre O'Connell) and her drug-addicted son Brian (Jake Lacy). The self-imposed penance Diane pays all day each day stems from a story referred to as "The Cape" ... a long ago act of betrayal and indiscretion that has clung to Diane ever since.
The rest of the cast is filled with faces you'll recognize (and names you can't recall), many for their work in the 1960's, 1970's and 1980's, including: Estelle Parsons (Best Supporting Oscar winner for BONNIE AND CLYDE, 1967), Andrea Martin (MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING, 2002), Joyce Van Patten (sister of Dick, ST ELMO'S FIRE, 1985), and Glynnis O'Connor (ODE TO BILLY JOE, 1976). But don't mistake this for some nostalgic tribute - each of these women offer up exactly what's needed for their respective characters. It's a joy to behold their work - and easy to take for granted.
This little Massachusetts community is tight-knit and speaks freely on the lives of each other. There are few secrets. Everyone asks Diane about Brian - her son that lies to her face, acts perturbed when she tries to help, forces her to listen to bible-thumping, and finally comes clean on why he's treated her the way he has. Filmmaker Kent's first narrative feature is an organic character driven story about aging, carrying a burden, striving to make amends, and suppressing true feelings by constantly serving others. When Diane writes in her journal, "My loved ones are gone and I'm left to be", it takes her (and us) closer to her soul than any soup kitchen possibly could. Casserole dishes can only heal so much., and a lead role for a respected actress serves us all.
it's a Burton!
Greetings again from the darkness. Generally speaking, I'm not a fan of Disney's commitment to live action remakes of so many of their animated classics; however, I'll readily admit that teaming the always creative Tim Burton with every child's favorite pachyderm piqued my interest. In case you don't recall, Disney's fourth animated feature film was released in 1941, and told the story of a baby elephant who could fly thanks to the flapping of his enormous ears. DUMBO was, at its core, a story of how being different can cause you to be an outcast, while also delivering the strength to overcome those who might treat you poorly or look to profit at your expense. It was a sweet and simple message delivered in a brief 64 minutes.
Taking up almost another hour, filmmaker Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger seize the original book by husband and wife writing team Harold Pearl and Helen Aberson and deliver a story that is anything but simple. Rather it's complicated, convoluted and at times nonsensical. What does work is the visual splendor of watching a cute little elephant fly around a circus ... first a tattered old-timey tent camp and later a futuristic amusement park.
It takes only about 30 seconds for us to recognize the silver screen stylings of Tim Burton. The ragged train cars in need of paint followed by the black smoke from Casey's 'smiley' face engine, all point to the familiar visuals that harken back to Mr. Burton's memorable films like FRANKENWEENIE, BEETLEJUICE, BATMAN, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, BATMAN RETURNS, CORPSE BRIDE, and ALICE IN WONDERLAND (to name a few).
It's 1919 as the train clackety-clacks from Sarasota, Florida through small southern towns and up to Joplin, Missouri, where youngsters Milly (Nico Parker, lookalike daughter of Thandie Newton) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) give a hug to their father Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell). Holt has been away serving in WWI, and returns minus one arm and one wife ... while he was at war, she lost her battle to illness, leaving the children in the care of the circus performers. Holt and his wife used to be featured performers in the Medici Brothers Circus run by Max Medici (Danny Devito), but times are tough and Holt is assigned to elephant-tending duty, where Max has recently purchased a pregnant Mrs. Jumbo elephant.
We don't have to wait long for the baby to arrive, be called a "freak" by Max, learn to fly, be separated from his mother, and be targeted by a greedy amusement park owner named V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton). Vandevere's Dreamland has some familiar Disneyland elements, and serves it purpose for reminding us that traditional circuses are being replaced by high tech amusement parks - an environment more in line with today's youth.
Where the film suffers is with its unnecessarily complicated story and underdeveloped characters. The usually reliable Mr. Keaton never really kicks in as the greedy and evil amusement park owner. Mr. Devito mostly yells his lines, and Mr. Farrell just seems categorically miscast. In what is the first film for both, young Ms. Parker shows flashes of talent, while Mr. Hobbins is given next to nothing to do. Eva Green does bring a welcome element as aerial artist Colette, but Alan Arkin's role as a banker seems tacked on as a favor. Unfortunately we barely get to know the circus troupe, though Miss Atlantis (Sharon Rooney) strums her ukulele as she sings "Baby Mine", the Oscar nominated song from the 1941 original, penned by Ned Washington and Frank Churchill. Adding to the Burton oddities, Michael Buffer makes an appearance as ring announcer ... albeit a different ring than what he is most often associated with.
It likely won't surprise you that Mr. Burton delivers a film much darker than the original, and at least he avoided the temptation of talking animals (the legendary Mel Blanc voiced Dumbo in the original). He does offer up a nod to the Pink Elephant sequence from the original, as well as the presence of mice ... though wisely no crows this time around. Danny Elfman's score is a perfect fit (as usual) and Oscar winning Set Designer Rick Heinrick (SLEEPY HOLLOW) works his magic, as does 4-time Oscar winning Costume Designer Colleen Atwood (ALICE IN WONDERLAND). The technical mastery of the film is finalized with the work of Cinematographer Ben Davis, whose work on such grand scale films as CAPTAIN MARVEL, DOCTOR STRANGE, AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY allows him to make the best of the visuals, even while the story disappoints. There is a contemporary message delivered near the end regarding the captivity of animals, and despite the dark, overly complicated story, it's still quite fun to watch Dumbo fly.
The Aftermath (2019)
looks the part, but
Greetings again from the darkness. It's 1945 on the heels of the Allied forces victory in WWII. British officer Lewis Morgan is charged with overseeing the military's role in beginning the process of returning a sense of normalcy back to Hamburg (and assisting with hunting Nazi loyalists). He is joined there by his wife Rachel, and they are to occupy a beautiful mansion that has been "requisitioned" from a German architect and his daughter. Captain Morgan makes the unusual offer of having the man and his daughter remain in the house, rather than relocate to one of the dreadful camps, where food and privacy is scarce. Here's a tip gentlemen: never invite Alexander Skarsgard to live in the same house as your significant other.
Captain Morgan is played by Jason Clarke, and his wife Rachel by Keira Knightley. The aforementioned Skarsgard is Stephen Lubert, and Flora Thieman plays Freda, his rebellious teenage daughter. On her train ride in, Rachel hears a young girl discussing the rule of "no fraternizing" with the German people. Of course, we know (even if Rachel doesn't know yet) that it's not the little girl who is going to break this rule. An awkward reunion for Morgan and his wife indicates something is amiss. We soon learn that their young son was killed 4 years prior in a bombing - a hardship they share with Mr. Lubert, whose wife was also killed during the war. Clearly the loss of her son still impacts Rachel to the point that she rarely finds a moment of happiness.
If this was a "Seinfeld" episode, this is where 'yada, yada, yada' would be inserted, letting us know that a tryst between Lubert and Rachel occurs while husband Morgan is out on duty, and that romp brings her instantly back to life ... with smiles and piano playing. This little lovefest is contrasted with the rubble of Hamburg. The city is literally in ruins. The visuals are impressive, but we never get a feel for the challenge of rebuilding infrastructure and lives. Instead, we get more forbidden love.
Director James Kent is known mostly for his TV work, and the film is based on the novel by Rhidian Brook, who co-wrote the screenplay with Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse. It would be a mistake to assume, given the outstanding three lead actors, that this is a prestigious WWII drama. An accurate description would be 'soap opera.' The set design, costumes, and cast are first rate, but the direction, script, and editing scream soap opera. I believe my final count was 12. That's 12 shots of someone gazing out of a window ... train windows, car windows, house windows, bus windows ... every window gets its shot of winsome gazing. It's best you know going in to expect a soap opera ... not that there's anything wrong with that.
Hotel Mumbai (2018)
true and frightening
Greetings again from the darkness. A group of quiet and focused young men with backpacks arrive by boat and then split into taxis. We hear the calm voice being fed into their ear buds. The voice assures them that "God is with you" and "Paradise awaits." Of course, since this is based on true events from 2008, we know the horror that is about to be unleashed by these terrorists (more than 170 killed).
This is the first feature film from writer-director Anthony Maras, and with his co-writer John Collee (MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD, 2003), we are taken to CST, the train station which is one of the 12 terrorist targets. Actual footage is mixed in, leaving no doubt as to the panic and violence that unfolded. As the individuals in the group divide into their well-orchestrated terrorist teams, we flash to the morning routine at a nearby home. Arjun (Dev Patel) is frantically getting prepared for work before heading to his pregnant wife's place of work. He is dropping off their young child since the sitter was a no-show.
Arjun is part of the staff at the prestigious Taj Mahal Hotel Palace, affectionately referred to as "The Taj". The service is impeccable ... to the point of checking the temperature of bath water for one of the guests. Those who stay here are accustomed to and demanding of the very finest. However, on this stay, they will experience the sharp contrast of ultimate luxury and raw terror. As viewers, our guts sense the feeling of dread, even as the hotel managers and staff are welcoming arriving guests such as a retired Russian Special Forces officer turned wealthy playboy (Jason Isaacs) and newlyweds David (Armie Hammer) and Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi, "Homeland"), along with their newborn baby and nanny Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey).
As the cold-blooded attack is carried out by the terrorists at The Taj, we witness so many innocent people mowed down with precision - some execution style. Many hotel guests find hiding spots, including an exclusive club in the heart of the hotel. The staff, including Arjun and renowned Chef Hermant Oberoi (Anupam Kher), courageously try to survive while also protecting the guests. David and Zahra get separated from each other and from their baby, leaving the nanny desperately trying to keep the oft-crying infant from being heard.
We also witness the local police - undermanned, under-armed, under-trained - try their best to defuse the situation, knowing that Special Forces are "hours away". Courage is on display throughout the film, but this is no Jason Bourne or John McClane scenario. These are cooks and waiters and hotel guests caught in one of the most frightening situations imaginable.
For cinematic effect, the attack seems to take place over the course of a single night, whereas the actual events were over 3 days, resulting in 31 deaths at The Taj. The level of tension is maintained throughout ... it's a well-made thriller centered on actual events and real people. The filmmakers seem to go out of their way to avoid any political, social or religious commentary or insight. We only know the terrorists are told to take American prisoners and "Go and do Jihad". It's described as "indiscriminate terror" and that they are reclaiming what has been taken from them over the years. It is a difficult film to watch, though we understand there will always be bad people doing bad things for what they believe are the right reasons. Fortunately, there will also always be courageous and good people. More than once we hear the staff mention "Guest is God" ... but not all of these guests were welcome.
The Highwaymen (2019)
the other side
Greetings again from the darkness. Setting one's film up to be compared to a long time classic can be quite challenging for a filmmaker, but that's precisely the situation director John Lee Hancock finds himself. Known for crowd-pleasers like THE FOUNDER, SAVING MR BANKS, and THE BLIND SIDE, Mr. Hancock delivers a Netflix film destined to face off against Arthur Penn's 1967 classic BONNIE AND CLYDE. Where the earlier film focused on the anti-hero celebrity (and beautiful faces) of the young outlaws, this latest film flips the lens and puts law enforcement (particularly grizzled veterans) front and center (Bonnie and Clyde are barely glimpsed until near the end).
The film begins with a well-planned and deadly prison break in 1934 and then moves into a meeting where Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch) of the Department of Corrections is pitching Texas Governor "Ma" Ferguson (Kathy Bates) on his idea of reactivating the defunct Texas Rangers, and bringing legendary lawman Frank Hamer out of retirement. It's pretty simple - the FBI and its new-fangled forensics is failing miserably in tracking down Bonnie and Clyde, and the hope is that Hamer and his old-fashioned detective work will succeed.
Kevin Costner plays Frank Hamer, and we first see him and his well-trained pet pig trying to enjoy a peaceful retirement at home with his wife Gladys (Kim Dickens). Not long after, he's joined by his old partner Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), who is down on his luck, drinks too much, and is in desperate need of a purpose. Thus begins the buddy road trip featuring the no-nonsense Hamer and the quipster Gault. Not many play self-importance better than Costner, and few deliver wisecracks better than Woody.
The screenplay comes from John Fusco, whose previous western projects include HIDALGO and YOUNG GUNS. Though this isn't a traditional western, it has most of the expected elements. Aging lawmen chasing colorful outlaws. Good versus evil. Right versus Wrong. While it's a relief the film doesn't romanticize the Barrow gang and their violent ways, it's a bit frustrating to see that the movie tries to make Hamer and Gault as famous and iconic as the outlaws they were chasing. Sure Bonnie's fashion influenced many women of the era, but that had to be nauseating for those lawmen in pursuit who were putting their lives on the line. In the 1967 film, Denver Pyle played Frank Hamer in a shamefully written role, and here Costner strikes so many hero poses and seems to invoke mystical ESP abilities in his police work, that we half expect Hamer to walk on water at some point.
The best part of the film is watching Costner and Harrelson work together, with the latter really making this work on whatever level it does. Additionally, there is a scene with Hamer and Clyde's dad that features William Sadler in a cameo. I don't know if this meeting actually took place in real life, but it teases what the film could have been. As a fantasy for cinema aficionados, the project was originally intended to be a vehicle for Robert Redford and Paul Newman, but just never progressed. Combine that with BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID and THE STING, and you'd have an unmatched triumvirate of buddy greatness. Hancock's film certainly pales in comparison to the 1967 film, but it's a worthy story that deserves to be told.
The Price for Silence (2018)
makes a statement
Greetings again from the darkness. Kira is startled from slumber by a horrendous nightmare - a flashback to a years ago night when she was sexually abused. Her partner in bed knows nothing of Kira's vision, only that she's been violently pushed from bed, which is not her preferred morning method of waking up. As the story from filmmaker Tony Germinario unfolds, we learn more about Kira and the background that has her deservedly bitter.
Lynn Mancinelli (she also starred in Germinario's film BAD FRANK) plays Kira and does a pretty nice job of allowing us to understand the reasons for her dramatic mood swings. Even her sessions with her therapist are twisted ... a recurring theme in Kira's life. When she returns home for the funeral of her father, it's obvious her relationship with her mom (Kristin Carey) is distant at best, though she does seem to connect with her gay-artist-recovering addict younger brother Lucas (Emrhys Cooper). As with most other relationships in her life, this brotherly love may not be as solid as we are initially led to believe.
The small town where she grew up, and where mom and brother still live, is controlled by Richard Davenport (played by Richard Thomas) and his son Alden (Jon McCormick). While Richard presents himself as a charitable friend of the family, Kira's history with the Davenports generates something much deeper than mere bad feelings. Her hatred of the Davenports drives a further wedge in the broken relationship with her own mother - a mother oblivious to family secrets. Those secrets were kept in order to "protect" the mother, though it has created a kind of house of cards.
Kira is a raging alcoholic and her actions have caused pain and disruption to many others, but once we learn the whole story, her actions seem acceptable while the actions (or lack thereof) of others seem inexcusable. The pieces of this film that are worth watching are the performance of Ms. Mancinelli and the way Richard (John-Boy Walton) hides his true personality from others. It's a low budget film with atrocious make-up, uneven editing, and camera work that doesn't complement some of the scenes. As a statement for how sexual abuse can wreak havoc on the victim and their relationships, it makes an admirable point. As cinematic viewing, it's tough to recommend.
The Mustang (2019)
man and horse figure it out
Greetings again from the darkness. A herd of wild horses frolic and gallop and relax in the prairies that separate majestic peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Suddenly the peace being enjoyed by the horses is interrupted by the deafening noise of a helicopter above. The purpose of the helicopter is to push the herd towards the corral and trucks that are part of the round-up. An opening title card informs us that more than 100,000 wild horses roam the U.S. countryside and the government is only able to manage a small percentage. Part of that process involves therapy for prisoners ... an obvious analogy being the two wild beings try to tame each other. When the prisoners have trained the horses, an auction is held, and many of the animals will be used in law enforcement - an irony not dwelled upon here.
Roman Coleman is a guilt-riddled man. A man of short fuse and violent ways. He readily admits to the prison psychologist (Connie Britton) that "I'm not good with people." After 12 years in isolation, he's been transferred to general population and he seems pretty indifferent about it. His guilt is the type that only a split-second violent outburst can saddle one with - though we don't hear the specifics until late in the film. The psychologist assigns him to "outdoor maintenance" which is a fancy institutional term for, well, shoveling horse manure.
As he observes the rehabilitation program, where the convicts train the wild mustangs under the tutelage of crusty old horse trainer Myles (Bruce Dern), Roman is drawn to the wildest of the wild ... a mustang kept in a dark stall and labeled untrainable. The parallels to Roman himself are obvious, and soon head trainer Myles and fellow convict Henry (Jason Mitchell, MUDBOUND) have invited Roman into the program. It's here where man and horse prove how similar their temperaments are - they both react with anger to most any situation. After a particularly cruel and unfortunate outburst, Roman is back to solitary confinement and studying up on horses.
Writer-director Laure de Claremont-Tonnerre co-wrote the story with Mona Fastvold and Brock Norman Brock (BRONSON). It's the director's first feature film and she shows a real knack for pacing ... letting the uncomfortable scenes between man and horse breathe and play out. Speaking of uncomfortable, when Roman's pregnant daughter Martha (rising star Gideon Adlon, BLOCKERS) shows up to get his signature on a form so that she can run off with her boyfriend, the history and lack of commonality between the two is palpable. Their scenes together are excruciating. Sure this is a cliché-filled concept, but the director and especially the cast keep us glued to the screen and caring about what happens.
Matthias Schoenaerts stars as Roman, and it's yet another stellar performance from the actor who exploded onto the movie screen with BULLHEAD (2011) and RUST AND BONE (2012). Since then, it's been one terrific turn after another. His physical presence and soulful eyes convey so much. He has mastered the strong silent type, but here he expertly uses body language to communicate with both the horse and the audience. The drug-dealing sub-plot appears to have been included to remind us just how dangerous a prison yard can be, but we never lose sight of the pain involved with second chances and learning to be a better person. There are some similarities to two excellent 2018 movies, LEAN ON PETE and THE RIDER, but this first time filmmaker wisely lets her talented cast do their thing, as she complements their work through cinematographer Ruben Impens' (BEAUTIFUL BOY) fabulous work up close and with expansive vistas. Robert Redford was an Executive Producer on the film, so the beauty of the area is not surprising. The film allows emotions to play out right through the final shot.
Gloria Bell (2018)
Julianne Moore shines and sings
Greetings again from the darkness. Having previously mentioned my general annoyance at the frequency of which the 'Americanization' of World Cinema projects occur, I was initially dismayed to hear about the remake of the excellent Chilean film GLORIA. That 2013 featured a terrific performance from Paulina Garcia, and provided a grounded look at life of a single woman of a certain age. However, when it was announced that the American version would be directed by Sebastian Lelio, who also directed the earlier version, and that it would star Julianne Moore in the lead role, the idea became much more palatable.
Oscar winner (and 4 time nominee) Julianne Moore has been one of our more interesting actors since she jumped off the screen (in a supporting role) in 1992's THE HAND THAT ROCKED THE CRADLE. She's now approaching 60 years of age, and is a true master at capturing the essence of a character. She brings Gloria Bell to life in the most believable and grounded manner possible. Rather than a movie caricature, Gloria is a real woman. She plugs away at her daily work in the insurance business. She belts out the songs on the radio as she drives her car. She gets annoyed at the stray cat who sneaks into her apartment. She smokes and drinks. She tries to be part of her adult kids' lives. She tries to ignore, but ultimately reports the loud noises from her upstairs neighbor to her landlord. She loves dancing in clubs with men she doesn't know, or even alone. In conclusion, Gloria lives her life.
Much of the film focuses on the odd developing relationship Gloria has with Arnold (John Turturro). Their eyes meet across the dance floor, spend some time chit-chatting, and soon, his Velcro-back brace is being ripped off. As with many folks, Arnold's baggage is more burden than history. He seems to be in an unhealthy marriage with ultra-dependent grown daughters and a wife who can't get through a day without his help. The cell phone ring becomes a running gag ... one Gloria finds little humor in.
Supporting work is provided by Sean Astin (a Las Vegas mistake), Brad Garrett (Gloria's ex), Jeanne Tripplehorn (Garrett's new wife), and Holland Taylor (Gloria's mom). Each of these characters get a brief sub-story, as do Gloria's grown kids, played by Michael Cera and Caren Pistorius. With the son's marriage in shambles, and the daughter heading to Sweden to live with a man, Gloria experiences the trials and tribulations of life while still looking for meaning and companionship ... each a search worth pursuing.
Alice Johnson Boher adapted the screenplay for this version from the original by director Sebastian Lelio and Gonzalo Maza. She refrains from the usual American melodrama or corniness, and instead delivers something to which the actors and viewers can easily relate. The fine line between independence and loneliness is in a delicate balance, and one that's deftly handled here. And of course, there are scenes that are elevated thanks to the brilliance of Julianne Moore's performance. All in all, fans of GLORIA will not be disappointed ... just lay off the post-yoga cigarette.
The Hummingbird Project (2018)
a dancing Skarsgard is not enough
Greetings again from the darkness. More. Better. Faster. Most industries have those goals, and this story from French-Canadian writer-director Kim Nguyen focuses on high-frequency stock traders ... particularly a race between two competitive firms to cut one millisecond off the processing time. We learn that one millisecond is roughly one flap of a hummingbird wing (hence the film's title).
We also learn that one millisecond can translate into hundreds of millions in profits, which is why cousins Vincent and Anton walk away from their jobs at the Eva Torres brokerage firm to pursue their dream of shaving that single millisecond. Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg) is the fast-talking visionary and deal-maker, while Anton (Alexander Skarsgard) is the computer programming whiz. Yes, you read that correctly. Sex symbol Skarsgard ("True Blood", "Big Little Lies") plays a paunchy, balding, computer nerd with zero social skills. He also delivers the film's most enjoyable dance moves ... it's a moment to which any programmer can relate.
If any of the above (other than Anton's dance) seems the least bit exciting or enticing, you should know that the bulk of the film deals with the digging and drilling (there's even a montage) required to lay the fiber optic cable that will allow this extra-quick data delivery. Their plan is to tunnel from Kansas City to New Jersey in a perfectly straight line. Because of this, we get conversations with homeowners, conversations with Amish, conversations with drilling experts, and conversations with those who want this to happen, and those who don't. Have you ever thought about drilling through a granite mountain that is located in the middle of a park? Neither have I, and I wouldn't have thought of it again if not for writing this review.
To clarify, this is a story that seems like it could be true, but isn't. Most of the screen time is devoted to either underground drilling, computer programming, or intellectual property. And while I'm sure each of these categories have their fans, most will agree the transfer to cinema does not come off especially entertaining. In fact, it's so dry that the filmmaker felt the need to include a cancer sub-plot in hopes that we might find Vincent a bit more appealing as a character. It should be noted that since his Oscar nomination for THE SOCIAL NETWORK, Mr. Eisenberg has displayed a remarkable lack of variation in the roles he's chosen and characters he's played. At this point, we mostly just find him annoying, rather than brilliant or even mildly interesting.
Salma Hayek plays Eva Torres, former boss of the cousins, and now laser-focused in not letting the boys win. Ms. Hayek is given relatively little screen time, and is portrayed as the villain ... although her goals are no different than Vincent's and Anton's. Michael Mando plays Mark Vega, the partner and drilling expert the boys choose to project manage this undertaking. Mr. Mando is best known as Nacho from both "Better Call Saul" and "Breaking Bad". Ayisha Issa brings a momentary jolt to the proceedings as a mountain driller, but the film simply drags when neither Mr. Skarsgard nor Ms. Hayek are on screen.
Technology is a very difficult topic to make visually entertaining. I'm not talking about the high-tech special effects that go into making the wildly successful superhero movies that are so popular these days. No, I'm referring to actual technology ... programming and data analysis. The list of technology-focused films includes: SNEAKERS, THE SOCIAL NETWORK, OFFICE SPACE, HACKERS, WAR GAMES, SWORDFISH, and THE IMITATION GAME. The best of these understood that the story around the technology was more vital than the actual programming being done. And all of them were wise enough to avoid drilling and digging. Then again, none of the others featured a dancing Skarsgard.
Five Feet Apart (2019)
Rising star Haley Lu shines again
Greetings again from the darkness. The all-too-familiar sick/dying teenager genre is frequently associated with Lifetime Channel movies or something of that ilk. What sets this one apart (and above) many in the slew of similarly themed movies is the script, and more so, two outstanding lead performances. Director Justin Baldoni is best known as an actor and director of TV projects, but he (mostly) handles the script from Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis quite well.
Rising star Haley Lu Richardson (COLUMBUS, SPLIT) plays Stella, a teenager who has been dealing with Cystic Fibrosis (CF) her entire life. When we first meet her, she has checked back in to the hospital for a "tune-up". Despite her breathing struggles and medical issues, Stella is a shining light of optimism who is friendly with the entire hospital staff and other patients. She's also OCD and maintains a strict regimen on her meds in hopes of hanging on long enough for the holy grail - a lung transplant, or ultimately a miracle cure for this death sentence disease. Stella maintains two to-do lists: one for the day, and another for her bucket list. She also runs a YouTube channel where she educates us on what it's like living with CF.
On one of her frequent visits to the hospital nursery to watch the newborn babies, Stella crosses paths with Will (Cole Sprouse), a more cynical CF patient who has B cepacia form - so deadly that sufferers aren't included on the lung transplant list. In contrast to Stella, Will wonders if the hassle of treatment is worth the pain and inconvenience, when so little hope is present. CF patients are required to don gloves, masks, and oxygen packs. One rule that must not be broken is to maintain at least a 6 foot distance at all times between themselves and any other CF patient. The risk of passing along their specific mixture of bacteria is simply too great.
'Opposites attract' is in play here as Stella and Will share only one trait, and it's a bond where being too close could literally kill one or both of them. These are smart and interesting characters who understand there are no "happily ever afters" in their future. We are along for the ride as they learn more about each other. Will is a talented sketch artist with a wicked sense of humor in his cartoons, while Stella carries a special burden of putting others at ease while focusing on the present and looking to the future, thanks to the exploits of her beloved older sister Abby (Sophia Bernard).
Other supporting actors include Claire Forlani as Will's mother, Parminder Nagra (BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM) as the doctor, Kimberly Hebert Gregory as the strict and caring Nurse Barb, and Moises Arias as Poe, a witty gay teenager and fellow CF patient, who has been friends with Stella since they were young kids. As the romance blooms for Stella and Will, there are some too-familiar moments and a couple of lame musical interludes with slow-motion ... but there are also some terrific and heartfelt scenes. In particular, a pool cue at the pool is extraordinarily tender and romantic.
The film teases us a few times with assumptions, but the theme of human touch is ever-present. For CF patients, is love selfish or is it an inherent need? 'The lights are like stars' is a nice touch that explains how this disease forces these folks to think a little differently and find joy in the moment ... yet still keep their distance. Sure, Ms. Richardson (a bona fide star in the making) and Mr. Sprouse are a bit too old to be playing teenagers, but their talent allows us to take in the layers here with the disease and the limitations on life. The film has plenty of laughs and plenty of tears (bring your tissue) as we watch a heartfelt romance while also learning some of the challenges facing the 30,000 CF patients in the U.S.
hypnotic or horrific depending on your taste
Greetings again from the darkness. A wounded, bleeding, hysterical woman is seen crawling through the snow. She's not dressed appropriately for the weather, and it's apparent she's suffered some type of trauma. This opening shot is from a bird's eye view, and it's the way provocative filmmaker Gaspar Noe (LOVE, ENTER THE VOID) opens his latest film. This vivid visual sticks with us as we flashback to the progression of events that led to this woman's unfortunate circumstance ... her situation being the conclusion to what we are about to watch.
The initial dance sequence is shown in full and it is quite stunning in its energy and physicality and athleticism. As best I could tell, it was a single long take with dancers writhing and music thumping, both in frenetic mode. Much of each dancer's personality is depicted in their movements, and the video interviews we see as part of their audition reveal a culturally diverse group of young adults unsure of where this is headed. We are watching a troupe of mid-1990's French dancers rehearsing in a large, otherwise empty facility on a snowy night, and we too are unprepared for what's about to unfold.
After that initial performance, the dancers begin mingling as the camera takes us inside the various conversations. Lust, jealousy, and insecurities fill the air as the choreographed energy we first watched in awe slowly disintegrates into a bizarre type of hand-to-hand combat ... some psychological, some more physical/violent in nature. The dancers are slipping from sanity, unsure if it's temporary or possibly deadly. One of them traces their spinning head (not literal) and unexplained sensations to the Sangria punch - leading to some angry confrontations and outrageous behavior.
While none of the individual performances really stand out ... this is not a film about certain interesting characters ... it should be noted that Sofia Boutella (HOTEL ARTEMIS) plays Selva, the dance company's choreographer, and Kiddy Smile plays Daddy, the DJ who keeps the music pumping. Watching the movie is truly like observing a group acid trip through the eyes of someone on an acid trip. The camera is sometimes invading intimate moments, while other times hovering or wildly spinning above or below. Sometimes it felt like a GoPro was strapped to a frantic parakeet that had just been set free from its cage.
Combining the camera work with the constant thundering of music, some might describe the film as hypnotic and hallucinatory (I prefer horrific). While most of the dancers seem to lose all sense of reality, some react more violently than others. Hysterics run rampant, especially in a sequence where a young boy is locked in a utility closet by his mother. Whether the scene was for shock value or merely in keeping with the filmmaker's demented approach is unclear - either way, this came across as too much on top of too much. Simply put, the film is a relentless assault on the eyes and ears and all sense of decency ... just as Gaspar Noe likely intended.
heroes should have been in the parade
Greetings again from the darkness. The true story of the Polish fighter pilots who helped the Royal Air Force (RAF) win the Battle of Britain in WWII is certainly fascinating and deserves telling. However, the budget constraints are a hindrance to this production, and though the story gets told, it's missing the visual flair we've come to expect. It's the first screenplay from co-writers Robert Ryan and Alastair Galbraith, and together with director David Blair, they all seem to understand the historical importance of the story and those involved.
The film begins in 1940 German occupied France, and this is where we first see Zumbach (played by Iwan Rheon), on his way to meet up with his fellow Polish pilots in England. Poland had only been a free standing country for about 20 years at this time, and these men were committed to salvaging their country ... even if this meant fighting with the RAF against Germany. Initially the arrogance of British commanders borders on racism, as it's assumed the Polish fighters don't compare to the elite Royal Air Force pilots. Once stationed in Northolt under Kentowski (Milo Gibson, Mel's son), Squadron 303 begins to take shape flying Hurricanes, disproving most of the preconceptions of British brass and pilots; although their success does cause some jealousy in the ranks over the prowess of the Polish pilots.
The less than stellar CGI used for the dogfights is a bit distracting, especially since there is only minimal character development. Polish fighter ace Witold Urbanowicz (played by Dorcin Morocinski) is idolized, but we learn very little about the man outside of flashbacks of his family in war torn Poland. There is a budding romance with Zumbach and Phyllis Lambert (Stephanie Martini), but quite a few assumptions must be made to take us to their final sequence. The character of Ms. Lambert is the standout female role here, and though she's given a few quality scenes, it's her shock of blonde hair that seems to stand out most.
The film concludes in 1946 London with the victory parade for King George VI. Despite Polish pilots helping immensely in the RAF victory in the Battle of Britain, no Polish pilots marched with the Allied forces. As a bitter Zumbach states, "we wouldn't want to offend %&*$ing Stalin." Squadron 303 was the highest scoring squadron of RAF during the war, and it's unforgivable how the British viewed Polish casualties as mere numbers, despite the dead being friends and countrymen to the Polish pilots. This is overall a respectful approach to a key historical story, and one in which all Polish people should take pride.
Der Mann aus dem Eis (2017)
Greetings again from the darkness. Some writers struggle with how to end their story. In this case, writer-director Felix Randau had his ending served up in newspaper headlines almost 30 years ago, and his challenge was to come up with an interesting beginning and middle (as well as meaning for the ending). In 1991, at almost 10,000 feet above sea level, a body was discovered. Originally thought to be a missing hiker, it was determined instead to be a 5300 year old Neolithic man. Thanks to the ice, he was well-preserved along with his clothes, tools, and supplies.
Nicknamed Otzi the Iceman since he was found in the Otztal Alps (Italy), some basic information could be derived about his existence and death. Filmmaker Randau then created a fictional account of his final days, speculating on and imagining the life he led. German actor Jurge Vogel stars as Kelab (Otzi the Iceman), and we get our first glimpse of native Neolithic life in the community of his clan. The mother of his child dies giving birth, and we see Kelab display a magical box used as a shrine of worship to pay respect. The contents of the box are not revealed until near the end of the film.
While Kelab is out hunting for food, the village is violently attacked. The invasion kills most of the inhabitants and destroys their homes and supplies. Kelab takes the surviving infant child with him as he sets off to seek revenge. As he tracks those who attacked, we see him balance his incredibly strong survival instincts with his emotional need for revenge. Another community led by the legendary Franco Nero offers Kelab a place to rest and a safe haven for the infant child that couldn't possibly make the trek that lies ahead for his father. The scenery is breathtaking and environment treacherous.
Very little dialogue is spoken, and what there is must be interpreted by the situation. The filmmakers and researchers decided on an early form of Rhaetian for the film, so unless you are a world renowned linguist, you'll likely have to join the bulk of viewers in interpreting meaning. Mr. Vogel is quite believable in his performance ... at times we forget he's an actor rather than the Neolithic man he's portraying.
The costumes and makeup are excellent and realistic, while the setting, scenery and environment (nature) are the true co-star. We feel the cold and grasp the harsh conditions. This was a violent life ... typically out of necessity, yet sometimes out of emotion. QUEST FOR FIRE (not CAVEMAN) and the brutal elements of THE REVENANT (without the bear) are recalled; however, Mr. Randau's dramatized account of Kelab's last days in pursuit of vengeance are a perfect fit for this coldest of all cold cases. Otzi the Iceman's preserved mummy can be viewed at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy.
doing what's necessary
Greetings again from the darkness. So much trust goes into a marriage. We try to choose someone we can imagine growing old with, and also whose morals are in line with our own ... especially if raising kids is part of the plan. Of course sometimes things don't work out as hoped, and writer-director Josephine Mackerras shows us what happens when things go horribly wrong - when the person we have trusted is so drastically different than the person we believed them to be.
Alice (Emilie Piponnier) and Francois (Martin Swabey) appear to be a normal wife and husband raising a cute little boy named Jules. Alice is a beautiful and caring person, whose goodness shines through in her smile. Francois is the charming type who recites literary passages at dinner parties before planting a passionate kiss on his wife in front of everyone at the table. One day, Alice's credit card is declined which leads her down the dark trail no one hopes to travel. Francois has maxed out the cards and emptied the bank account. Worse yet, their apartment is nearing foreclosure from lack of payments.
Further research leads Alice to Elegant Escorts and the realization that her beloved husband has been leading a secret double life - one that has left her penniless with a young child. What happens next is quite surprising. Sweet Alice proves to be much tougher than she appears. After some terrible guidance from her mother, Alice takes control of the situation in order to save her home and provide for her son. Her friend and mentor in her new vocation is Lisa (Chloe Boreham), who offers tips and emotional support. This gets her through the clumsy and awkward initial attempts at carrying out her new duties. Soon she believes the plan is working and she'll be able to save her home, but alas, Francois reappears and complicates the situation.
This is the first feature film from Ms. Mackerras and the film is a Grand Jury prize nominee at SXSW. The obvious comparison here is to Louis Bunuel's masterpiece BELLE DE JOUR (1967) starring Catherine Deneuve, with the obvious difference being one character was bored and craved attention, while another was desperate to save her home. Self-discovery plays a role for both. The tagline for this film is: "She did everything right, until it all went wrong", and it's a reminder that often we find the inner strength needed during times of crisis. The film also offers up a nice moral of the story in noting the cleansing power of nature. It's a terrific little film that flashes significant talent from filmmaker Josephine Mackerras and lead actress Emilie Piponnier.
I'm Not Here (2017)
bravura Mr. Simmons
Greetings again from the darkness. So many are haunted by the past - unable to move beyond either having been dealt a bad hand or having created one through their own actions. The film opens on a gaunt Steve (JK Simmons), alone in his apartment, and seemingly barely functioning. He is contemplating suicide with a shiny gun he keeps on a coffee table in a home as unkempt as himself. His only breaks are to frantically search the house for another bottle of vodka, or to listen to a phone message that kicks off yet another painful memory.
The film features three timelines for Steve: the despondent, suicidal elder; the twenties and thirties version (Sebastian Stan); and the 1960's childhood Stevie (Iain Armitage, "Young Sheldon"). Those young years for Stevie recall his always-annoyed mom (Mandy Moore) and his fun-loving dad (Max Greenfield), while the young adult years show us his romance and marriage with Karen (Maika Monroe). It's not long before we recognize the common thread that binds the timelines: alcoholism. First his dad's, then his own.
Our memories tend to return in moments and flashes of events. This becomes more evident and the memories less reliable when years of alcohol abuse are in play. The flashes include the courtroom and judge of his parents' divorce, his dad drinking, his own courting of Karen and the booze that accompanied it, the dissolution of his own marriage, and an unspeakable tragedy that ruined his life without taking it ... something he is looking to remedy with that gun.
JK Simmons is remarkable here. His Steve is mired in loneliness, depression, guilt, and regrets - each amplified through booze. Simmons' performance offers up not a single line of dialogue. He never leaves the apartment. He never has human interaction. Yet despite all of this, he never leaves our thoughts as he pinballs through his memories. Mr. Stan and Ms. Monroe provide the most telling scene outside of Simmons' segments. Notice the difference in demeanor as he tells her he heard the shot when his dad killed himself vs how she states her mother died from cancer. This is the contrast of moving on no matter what life serves up, or being burdened with that weight forever.
The film was directed by Mr. Simmons' wife Michelle Schumacher, and she co-wrote the screenplay with Tony Cummings (son of Emmy winning actor Robert Cummings). Mr. Cummings also appears as the judge in the divorce hearing. The film was originally shown in 2017, but is only now getting released. For fans of JK Simmons, it's a must see.
Ferrante Fever (2017)
Greetings again from the darkness. "I publish to be read." Those are the words of Elena Ferrante, an Italian writer who is committed to having her work speak for itself. She has eschewed the celebrity status that typically accompanies best-selling authors. Where previously we have been intrigued by recluses like JD Salinger, Harper Lee, or even Howard Hughes, it's rare (unprecedented?) that we are speaking of absolute anonymity. With no public face whatsoever behind the pen name of so many successful books, director Giacomo Durzi flirts with the question, is it the mystery of the author or the author's work that drives interest?
It's somewhat ironic that a film focused on an author so adamant about avoiding the spotlight opens with a quote from one of the most recognizable names and voices on the planet. Hillary Clinton describes Ferrante's writing as "hypnotic", and claims to ration her time for reading the books. Of course when one chooses not to talk about their work, it leaves others to do so. Director Durzi serves up a lineup of editors and writers, plus a researcher/scholar and the translator of Ferrante's all-Italian writing. We learn that the fuse of globalization for Ms. Ferrante's work was lit by James Wood and his review in "The New Yorker". This global literary phenomenon exploded from there. Insight from writers Jonathan Franzen, Roberto Saviano, and Elizabeth Strout help us understand how these books have been so influential, impacting so many readers. A segment on the Italian Strega Prize for literature is fascinating, as it becomes clear that even her home country doesn't know how to handle her success.
Translator Ann Goldstein is interviewed, and even jokes about how unusual it is for a translator to become part of the story ... another example of how Ferrante's anonymity changes things. Ms. Goldstein is unapologetically a fan of the work and seems anxious to continue. Ms. Ferrante's own words drawn from her letters in "Frantumaglia" hover over the film as narration, but that's as close as we get to the real person.
Time Magazine lists her as one of the 100 most influential personalities, which is kind of funny since we don't know her personality other than through her writing. Durzi's film is not a search for the person or a quest to uncover the author's identity, as it's more of an exploration of the popularity and impact of her work. We can't help but wonder if other writers are more envious of her writing ability or of her ability to remain anonymous. Typically the former destroys any hope of the latter ... but not with Ferrante.
Captain Marvel (2019)
origin story with 90's retro
Greetings again from the darkness. Girl Power! Not only does this serve as an origin story for Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, but Anna Boden becomes the first female director of a Marvel movie (she co-directed with Ryan Fleck, and they previously collaborated on IT"S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY, SUGAR, and HALF NELSON). It's Marvel's first solo female superhero movie, and even though it's actually a prequel to what we've previously seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), it clearly sets the table for AVENGERS: ENDGAME and the showdown with Thanos later this year.
Oscar winner Brie Larson (ROOM) stars as Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, and the film opens with her as Vers, a human-Kree hybrid and a soldier of Starforce being trained by Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) for a role in the Kree-Skrulls war. Part of the training includes regular reminders to keep her emotions under control ... see, not only is Vers a woman but she also shoots sonic blasts from her fists. The filmmakers have not presented her story in chronological order, but have instead utilized flashbacks and memories to let us (and Carol) in on how she obtained her immense powers.
In Marvel tradition, the film uses much humor as it progresses. Proving that the action takes place in the 1990's, the roof literally comes down on a Blockbuster video store (foreshadowing future financial events), as Vers crashes to earth. Soon she has met young agents Fury and Coulson, played by digitally de-aged Samuel L Jackson and Clark Gregg, respectively. This is of course pre-eye patch Fury, though we do get that origin story a bit later in the film. As Vers peruses the Blockbuster shelves, we get a tip of the cap to THE RIGHT STUFF and TRUE LIES, and soon thereafter, a nod to Radio Shack, pay phones, pinball machines, pagers, and 90's era internet speed. The retro bits may be a bit overdone, but the millennial target audience will surely enjoy.
The always interesting Ben Mendelsohn plays Talos, the leader of the shape-shifting Krulls - who also sport the best make-up as they transform from pointy-eared green aliens into exact replicas of humans. Lee Pace returns as Ronan the Accuser, while Djimon Hounsou is Korath and Gemma Chan is Minn-Erva, both part of Starforce. Annette Bening plays the AI Supreme Intelligence, while Mckenna Grace appears as young Carol in flashbacks.
The glimpses of Carol Danvers as a US Air Force fighter pilot lead to the best dramatic scenes of the film - her reuniting with fellow pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and Maria's daughter Monica (Akira Akbar). At first I was taken aback that Marvel dared cast a black actress in the role of stereotypical supportive sidekick, but then Ms. Lynch got her own impressive action chase sequence (similar to STAR WARS) and kicked some serious alien tail. Those familiar with the comics know that Maria Rambeau is the mother of Photon, a character likely to appear deeper in the universe.
The co-directors also co-wrote the script with Geneva Robertson-Dworet, and Nicole Perlman and Meg LeFauve contributed to the story. The strong female presence is impressive both on camera and off, as Pinar Toprak's score complemented the heavy 1990's rock music soundtrack. Again, nostalgia seems ever-present, as does the humor (Goose the cat/flerken) and good fun that existed in THOR: RAGNAROK and ANT-MAN AND THE WASP. Carol Danvers and her backstory also seem a bit more relatable than that of WONDER WOMAN.
Marvel offered up a nice tribute to the late Stan Lee by providing a new opening featuring his many cameos over the years. And yes, he was able to film his cameo for this one prior to his death in November 2018. So we have an origin story not just of Captain Marvel, but also of the Fury eye patch, the Avengers Initiative, and a prequel to all Marvel movies we've seen in the past few years. Two post-film stingers are included: one expected and necessary, while the other is good for a laugh. It's an inspiring story of a young girl who repeatedly fell down and got up and brushed herself off every time - even before her fists and eye balls could shoot energy streams. It's fitting and about time that young girls now have their own superhero to emulate.
The Wedding Guest (2018)
Greetings again from the darkness. I pity the poor soul who, based on the film's title, buys a ticket assuming it must be a light-hearted romantic-comedy starring Katherine Heigl. While we do watch a slow-building romance, this is much more of a road trip through parts of the world we don't usually see on screen. Writer-Director Michael Winterbottom (A MIGHTY HEART, THE KILLER INSIDE ME, THE TRIP) has had a solid career with movies that tend to be quite watchable, though not particularly memorable. Chalk up another.
The film opens in a subdued manner with a man (Dev Patel) meticulously packing a suitcase, boarding a plane, landing in Pakistan and renting a car. These are all things any of us might do if headed to a wedding. Only this mysterious man of few words also buys 2 guns, plastic ties and duct tape. Either this is going to be a honeymoon unlike any other, or he's on a different mission altogether. We don't have to wait long, as the night before the wedding, Patel sneaks past the armed security guard and into the family compound so that he can kidnap Samira (Radhika Apte), the bride-to-be.
Mr. Patel plays a British Muslim man with various names and identities, and a supply of passports. He was hired by a shifty rich guy (Jim Sarbh) who loves Samira to prevent her from going through with the arranged marriage. The meet up gets delayed as the kidnapping and fallout make national news. The story evolves into a predictable and familiar road trip, but with a delightfully different setting and backdrop than what we are accustomed to. A train to Delhi plays a role with Samira and her kidnapper on the lam - working to remain anonymous.
The film does offer up some twists and turns for us, but after an intriguing first 15 minutes, we pretty much know where things are headed. Fortunately the camera work of Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (HELL OR HIGH WATER) keeps our attention, as does the back and forth between Dev Patel and Radhika Apte, two excellent performers. So yes, the film is one we can enjoy watching, though it will likely never come up in conversation.