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Ad Astra (2019)
2.7 billion miles of daddy issues
Greetings again from the darkness. Astronaut Roy McBride's pulse rate may never go above 80 bpm, but mine certainly did during the opening sequence which features a stunning and spectacular space fall. It's unlike anything we've seen before. Roy has trained his entire life for this work; however his true mental state is only revealed slowly throughout the film's run. After witnessing his actions and hearing (through narration) his thoughts, we are left to decide what we think of Roy ... stoic hero or simmering psychopath? Either way, he's haunted by a past that has rendered him mission-focused and the world's worst party guest. The film takes place in the not-too-distant future.
Brad Pitt stars as Roy McBride, in what may be his career best (and most inward-looking) performance. Roy is the son of NASA hero Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), the leader of The Lima Project - a decades old mission to Neptune tasked with searching for extraterrestrial life. The elder McBride has long been assumed dead with no signals or response signs in many years. A recent power surge that threatens humanity has been traced to Neptune, and now Roy is being used as bait to track down his rogue astronaut father and prevent him from causing further damage.
Roy's assignment requires him to journey from Earth to the Moon to Mars and, ultimately, on to Neptune. Along the way, he travels with Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), an old friend of Clifford's, who is sent along to make sure the son doesn't acquiesce to the father. Of course, it's a nice touch to have Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland together again in a space movie 20 years after SPACE COWBOYS, a more upbeat adventure. Here we see a populated moon - yet another place we humans have messed up - replete with turf wars. There is also a shootout in a space capsule, and an unscheduled stop that provides shocking visuals and causes a shift in the crew.
James Gray, who directed the vastly underrated THE LOST CITY OF Z (2016) delivers a space film with terrific visuals and a script he co-wrote with Ethan Gross, that examines how a father can affect the life of his son even when he's not present. The film has an unusual pace to it. There are a few action sequences, but the core of the film is the psychological state of son versus absent father. Roy's inability to connect with loved ones is displayed through flashbacks involving Liv Tyler, and it's his own narration that provides us much more insight than his regularly scheduled psychological tests.
Ruth Negga (LOVING) has a nice turn as Helen Lantos, one of the key officials at the Mars space station, and her encounter with Roy provides him with yet more background on his father. It's easy to recall both APOCALYPSE NOW (only with Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Kurtz) and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY given the isolation, questionable mental state, and mission-gone-wrong. The cinematography Hoyte Van Hoytem (DUNKIRK) is outstanding, and never allows us to forget Roy is in space ... with danger present in every moment. The title translates "to the stars", and it's true in every sense.
Mr. Gray has delivered a thought-provoking big budget science fiction film. It has incredible special effects, but the personal story packs even more punch than the galactic adventure. Many will compare this to other space films like CONTACT, GRAVITY, and FIRST MAN, but this one requires more investment from the viewer, as it's the character study that resonates. This is Brad Pitt's movie (he's in most every scene), and the ties to his father are never more evident than when he (and we) see The Nicholas Brothers performing in black and white on that monitor. If a daily psychological profile was required for each of us, it would be interesting to see how much work would actually be accomplished. Now, imagine yourself stationed in space and just try to keep your heartrate below 80!
Corporate Animals (2019)
something to chew on
Greetings again from the darkness. Filmmaker Patrick Brice is building a career on films that leave us with an unsettled, even conflicted feeling on whether we should "like" them or not. He certainly has little time for 'normal' characters, and heroic behavior rarely enters a scene. His latest is written by Sam Bain (PEEP SHOW, and son of Emmy winning director Bill Bain), and it fits perfectly into the offbeat comedy realm of Mr. Brice's previous two CREEP films (with Mark Duplass) and THE OVERNIGHT (2015).
The film kicks off was an advertisement (in the pre-production stage) for Incredible Edibles, a bio-friendly company that produces edible cutlery (a comical visual). Featured in the ad is the company's ruthless CEO Lucy, played by Demi Moore. Lucy has arranged a Team Building outing for her employees in the mountains of New Mexico. The expedition is led by Brandon (Ed Helms, THE HANGOVER), a Bear Gryllis type who easily evaluates the team's incongruent pieces. After advising against Lucy's demand for the "Advanced" trail, Brandon gives in since 'the check has cleared'. He proceeds to lead the team on a repelling adventure down into a stunning cavern.
Just when it looks like the "advanced" trail was the right call, a cave-in occurs, trapping the team with no escape route, and little food or water. It's at this point when we realize that most of Lucy's management style seems to have originated in a 'get tough' management book from the 1960's. She has no real instinct on how to treat people, and mostly just bullies and tricks them. Ms. Moore's character and performance could easily be viewed as a spoof of her DISCLOSURE role with some uncomfortable laughs. We even get a Harvey Weinstein punchline.
Noticeable right away is the terrific comedic cast. Lucy's team consists of Jess (Jessica Williams, BOOKSMART), Freddie (Karan Soni, DEADPOOL), Derek (Isiah Whitlock Jr, CEDAR RAPIDS), Gloria (Martha Kelly, "Baskets"), Billy (Dan Bakkedahl, SWORD OF TRUST), May (Jennifer Kim, "The Blacklist"), Suzy (Nasim Padrad, ALADDIN), and intern Aidan (Calum Worthy, "American Vandal"). This is an exceptionally talented group of funny people who know how to deliver a line. Some of the funniest moments are the 'throwaway' lines being uttered in between the main dialogue. That's where the real comedy gold is buried, so listen closely.
Although the film is a comedy, it also boasts some elements of horror and suspense. Lucy's twisted idealism is the basis for some of this, as is the team's situation as things become more dire (think ALIVE blended with any workplace comedy). We learn the company is teetering on financial failure, and as one might expect in a confined area, workplace resentments and true feelings begin to rear up. The script never quite takes on business satire, focusing instead on personal reactions to a bleak situation. Even Gary Sinise and Britney Spears are included in the comic elements, and while some will find this to be a fitting midnight movie, others will once again be left wondering what to make of Patrick Brice's films. And maybe that's the point.
power abused and on display
Greetings again from the darkness. Silvio Berlusconi is a former Prime Minister of Italy, having served four times. He is also a billionaire businessman who has been deeply involved with Italian politics for more than 20 years. Berlusconi is in his 70's and has been convicted of tax fraud, accused of conflicts of interest, and is well known for his brash and charismatic personality, as well as his scandalous personal lifestyle and numerous controversies. None of that is required information prior to watching the movie since it's described as a "fictional" account, but it does help to have a basic understanding of the man.
It should be noted that the film was originally released as Part 1 and Part 2. The international version I watched has been edited to 151 minutes, almost one hour shorter than the two parts combined. It begins by following Sergio Morra, a charming hustler and schemer played by Riccardo Scamarcio (JOHN WICK 2). Along with his wife Tamara (Euridice Axen), he runs a prostitution and escort ring of beautiful young ladies ... each willing to show and do whatever is necessary to obtain money, drugs, and a career or rich husband. It becomes apparent that Sergio really wants a chance to meet with "him", Silvio Berlusconi, in hopes of some type of business partnership. Sergio's meeting with Silvio's lead mistress Kira (Kasia Smutniak) cracks the door that he so wishes to enter.
Sergio throws a party at Villa Morena, the home next to Silvio's sprawling Sardinia country estate. Decadence and wild activities abound, as does dancing by the swimming pool to the thumping Italian techno music. There seem to be no rules, or even etiquette, at the party where nudity, drugs and booze are commonplace. The party gets Silvio's attention and he agrees to meet with Sergio. It's at this point where the film shifts to its second narrative. No longer focused on Sergio, the story becomes all Silvio.
Toni Servillo delivers a tour de force as Silvio Berlusconi. Sure, he is masked in make-up to capture the look of someone trying hard to look younger than they are - but that's exactly what Silvio did (and does). Mr. Servillo manages to become the larger-than-life figure that commands attention in every crowd and every room. Elena Sofia Ricci plays Veronica Lario, Silvio's wife. We witness their crumbling marriage and the unhappiness she has each day. Silvio's process with everyone, including his wife, is to shift into smooth political salesman mode. In fact, one of the greatest scenes of all movies this year has Silvio re-capturing his early days as a real estate salesman as he pushes a non-existent apartment on a lonely housewife. The scene features fascinating acting, writing and filmmaking in one fell swoop.
Director Paolo Sorrentino is best known for his Foreign Language Oscar for the fantastic THE GREAT BEAUTY (2013). This film is more extreme and harsh than that one was, and Sorrentino co-wrote this script with Umberto Contarello. Frequent collaborator Luca Bigazzi delivers terrific cinematography. At times the film looks like one lavish fashion shoot. The score and music come from Lele Marchitelli and play a crucial role throughout. Italy is presented here as having declined into a state of hedonism with mass debauchery. It's uncomfortable watching women stoop to these levels in hopes of being recognized and rewarded with some type of affirmation - either a better career, more wealth, or whatever their dreams might be. A powerful man is there to take advantage of such insecurities. The film touches on Silvio's political power and the aftermath of the L'Aquila earthquake. Much of the film focuses on the overall amorality of those involved, and though the actions of these folks might go against our own standards, we will admit that filmmaker Sorrentino has a knack for making something so vulgar still look darn good on screen.
The Goldfinch (2019)
circumstances such that
Greetings again from the darkness. The challenge after watching this movie is deciding whether it needed more time or less. With a run time of two-and-a-half hours, that may seem like a ludicrous question, but Donna Tartt's Pulitzer Prize (fiction) winning 2013 novel was almost 800 pages long, covering many characters and spanning more than a decade. What to include and what to omit surely generated many discussions between director John Crowley (the excellent BROOKLYN, 2015) and screenwriter Peter Straughan (Oscar nominated for the fantastic TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, 2011).
13 year old Theo (Oakes Fegley) is visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother when a bomb explodes leaving Theo dazed in the rubble and his mother dead. An encounter with an injured stranger causes Theo to take a painting and flee the museum. Theo proceeds to hide the artwork as the family of one of his schoolmates takes him in. The painting is "The Goldfinch" by Rembrandt's pupil Carel Fabritius. In the first of many parallels separated by time, we learn Fabritius was killed (and most of his work destroyed) in an explosion. In fact, it's these parallels and near-mirror-images are what make the story so unique and interesting ... and so difficult to fit into a film.
When Theo's long-lost drunken shyster father (Luke Wilson) shows up with his equally smarmy girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson), they head to the recession-riddled suburbs of Las Vegas. It's here where Theo meets Boris (Finn Wolfhard, Richie from the two IT movies), a Ukranian emigrant living with his dad (yet another parallel). The two boys become friends, partaking in drugs, alcohol, and shoplifting. Another tragedy puts Theo on the run. He finds himself back in New York, where he takes up with Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), the partner of the stranger from the museum.
All of this is told from the perspective of young adult Theodore Decker, played by Ansel Elgort. We see him bunkered in a hotel room contemplating suicide. The story we watch shows how his life unfolded and landed him in this particular situation. And it's here where we find the core of the story. Circumstances in life guide our actions, and in doing so, reveal our true character. Theo carries incredible guilt over his mother, and his actions with Hobie, regardless of the reasons for doing so, lead him to a life that is not so dissimilar to that of adult Boris (Aneurin Barnard, DUNKIRK) when their paths cross again.
Other supporting work is provided by Ashleigh Cummings as Pippa, the object of Theo's desire, Willa Fitzgerald (played young Claire in "House of Cards") as Kitsey Barbour, Theo's fiancé, as well as Denis O'Hare, Peter Jacobson, and Luke Kleintank. As a special treat, Oscar winner Nicole Kidman plays Mrs. Barbour in what feels like two different performances. When Theo is young, she is the cold, standoffish surrogate mother who takes him in; however when older Theo returns, her own personal tragedies have turned her into a warm bundle of emotions in need of pleasantry. It's sterling work from an accomplished actress.
The segments of the film that resonate deepest are those featuring Oakes Fegley as young Theo. Fegley was so good in the criminally underseen WONDERSTRUCK (2017), and here he conveys so much emotion despite maintaining a stoic demeanor. It's rare to see such a layered performance from a young actor. Of course the film is helped immensely by the unequaled work of cinematographer Roger Deakins. Mr. Deakins finally won his first Oscar last year in his 14th nomination. Trevor Gureckis provides the music to fit the various moods and the two time periods. All of these elements work to give the film the look of an Oscar contending project; however, we never seem to connect with the older Theo, which leaves a hollow feeling to a story that should be anything but. Instead we are left to play "spot the parallels" ... a fun game ... but not engaging like we would hope.
a different drum
Greetings again from the darkness. This may be a conventionally-structured documentary profiling a well-known person, but that person possessed extraordinary talent, and her story deserves to be told ... or better yet, heard. Parkinson 's disease has robbed Linda Ronstadt of her celestial vocal gift, but co-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman succeed in proving how dynamic she was as a singer, and also how she influenced so many others.
The film opens with the audio of Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett introducing her on their respective TV programs, while a montage of magazine covers and album covers remind of us of her once immense and widespread popularity. We then take a journey through Ronstadt's childhood. Her grandfather invented the electric stove and electric toaster, and music played a significant role in all family gatherings. She describes how, as a young girl in Tucson, the radio was her "best friend in the world" as she listened to music from both sides of the border.
In 1964, at the age of 18 and the urging of her musician friend Bobby Kimmel, Ronstadt moved from Tucson to southern California to join a community of musicians. She rented a flat in Santa Monica for $80 per month - a price point that barely secures a meal at a decent restaurant in the area these days. Thanks to The Byrds, folk rock was exploding on the scene. Ronstadt sang back up on Neil Young's huge hit "Heart of Gold", and she, along with many others, performed regularly at The Troubadour. It's here where she crossed paths with Don Henley, Jackson Browne, and JD Souther, the latter of which became her boyfriend, songwriter, and producer.
The steady stream of interviews includes Henley, Browne, and Souther, as well as LA Times music critic Robert Hilburn, Asylum Records founder David Geffen, Bonnie Raitt, producer John Boylon, the legendary Ry Cooder, Cameron Crowe, Karla Bonoff, and (former Beatles) agent and producer Peter Asher. Most memorable are the recollections of Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, who collaborated with Ronstadt on the 1987 Grammy winning album "Trio". Ms. Parton's segment is especially insightful as she contrasts her own instinctive singing style with that of Ronstadt's analytic and perfectionist approach. Ms. Harris is featured in a clip of herself performing at a very young age, and she's quite emotional when discussing Ronstadt's gift.
It's quite fascinating to follow the number of shifts in her career and musical style. After achieving so much as a folk and pop singer, she was incredibly successful in country music, and as a tribute to her mother's favorites with American Standards arranged by Nelson Riddle. She also mesmerized with the operatic songs in "Pirates of Penzance" and stunned the music industry with her best-selling album of Mexican standards. Although she labels herself a balladeer and harmonizer, those descriptions are far too humble, and underscore the opinionated talent she was. The clips of her performing onstage are breath-taking. Her voice combining power, texture and nuance.
Linda Ronstadt was never a songwriter. She was an expert song interpreter like Elvis and Sinatra. She claims "every song has a face", and the numerous clips of her singing provide visual proof of what she means. The film touches on her early addiction to diet pills/speed, as well as her relationship with Jerry Browne, the duets with Aaron Neville and Ruben Blades, and for bonus points mentions the influence of the late great Harry Dean Stanton. We see her 2013 Rock n Roll Hall of Fame tribute performed by five fabulous female singers ... and it's their performance that really drives home just what a pure and unique voice Ronstadt possessed. While the trip through the many genres is interesting, what really stands out are the clips of her on stage ... making yet another song all hers. Linda Ronstadt certainly sang to the beat of a different drum, and we were fortunate to hear her.
The Sound of Silence (2019)
Greetings again from the darkness. "Turn that down!" Those are words we all hear when growing up and then repeat as our own kids come of age. Noise pollution rarely receives the same attention as that of air or water, and most of us are startled when we find ourselves out in the country - an environment lacking the everyday electronic, power cell, and human-generated noises we have come to accept and ignore. Director Michael Tyburkski and his co-writer Ben Nabors have expanded their 2013 short film PALIMPSEST to feature length, so that we might hear their point.
Peter Sarsgaard stars as Peter Lucian, a so-called "house-tuner". Peter has turned his life's work into an occupation where he visits his clients' homes and identifies the imbalances and problem areas caused by sound. For example, his clients may have relationship issues or experience exhaustion from poor sleep. Peter uses his exceptional hearing and experience to identify an 'out-of-tune' radiator or buzzing toaster, with the expectation of improving the clients' daily life. The premise is actually quite fascinating, especially for the city dwellers of New York City ... a place Peter has meticulously plotted and charted sounds on a map over the years.
And yes, you are correct. Peter is a bit lonely and isolated from society. His interactions are exceedingly low-key and mundane, though it's quite obvious in the early scenes that he take immense pride and pleasure from his work. Well that is, until he can't seem to solve new client Ellen's (Rashida Jones) issue. These first few scenes are the best the film has to offer. The additional scenes with Peter and Ellen seem forced, almost formulaic, as it slips into possible relationship mode for two people who don't seem comfortable at all in the world. The other piece of this puzzle has to do with Peter's quest for acceptance by the scientific community, specifically his mentor Robert Feinway (the always fun Austin Pendleton). Tony Revolori (THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL) plays Peter's assistant Samuel Diaz, and screen veteran Bruce Altman plays an investor who wants to monetize Peter's work.
"Silence is not empty, but immeasurably full." It's this type of philosophy that the filmmakers use to add weight to Peter's work. They keep us guessing as to whether he is a bit of a Savant ... or more of a crackpot. It's a high concept and ambitious idea accompanied by sound design that provides a constant tone/ringing that is sometimes faint, and sometimes prevalent. More of Peter's early sound detective work would have proved more interesting, but you'll likely find yourself a bit more attuned to the sounds around you after watching.
Liam: As It Was (2019)
Greetings again from the darkness. Co-directors Gavin Fitzgerald and Charlie Lightening could have ended this profile of singer Liam Gallagher by playing the theme song to "Family Feud" over the closing credits. While they do offer up an unflinching look at the talented singer of suspect character, we come away with the feeling that the entire project was designed to reunite Liam and his brother Noel. The two supposedly haven't spoken since they nearly brawled backstage at a scheduled Oasis concert: Paris 2009 Rock en Seine.
A blend of clips from that final Oasis show and Liam's 2017 comeback concert in support of his solo album "As You Were" kick off the film. However, before the opening credits roll, we hear Liam spewing enough f-words to make any teenager blush. The assumption is that we are to be reminded of what a prig Liam was, and the reputation he earned as being a bad boy of rock. The filmmakers, along with Liam and his mum, then spend the rest of the run time trying to convince us that he's a changed man and is actually devoted to his family and to his craft. We do believe the latter, but the former is quite a stretch. We do see his sons accompany him on a later tour, but Liam's numerous affairs and broken marriages are glossed over.
To his credit, Liam faces the camera with some candid self-assessment. It's unclear whether this is his own personal therapy or whether he's choosing to come clean for his fans. Others with featured input here include former Oasis guitarist Bonehead Arthurs, Liam's brother Paul, and Liam's mother Peggy (who is very proud of her boy). Also offering up praise is Debbie Gwyther, Liam's former assistant, who is now his lover and manager. He credits her with getting him back on track in life and back on stage in music.
Although the film features very little music, we do get enough concert clips to recognize Liam's stage presence; however, it's the camera time in the studio that is most fascinating - and leaves us feeling a bit short-changed. Seeing Liam work through songs at historic Abbey Road Studios could have made for an entire film. He is admittedly not a true songwriter, so being forced to collaborate due to the absence of Noel, probably displays the most personal growth for Liam (even if it's out of necessity).
Liam and Noel supposedly haven't spoken in the 10 years since that backstage fight killed off a superband and a brotherhood. The reconciliation evades the filmmakers, but they salvage the project as Liam's solo career takes off, and he travels with sons Gene (born to singer Nicole Appleton) and Lennon (born to actress Patsy Kensit). I chuckled when it's mentioned that Liam is 'the greatest rock front man' ... a line easily contradicted by mentioning Mick Jagger, Bono, or Bruce Springsteen. We are told "he is who he is", and can't help but wonder if that's a good thing. Having others say that he is grateful for a second chance is not the same as him stating it for himself.
Brittany Runs a Marathon (2019)
Greetings again from the darkness. Philosophically speaking, each of us is running our own marathon of life. Of course, every person's marathon has its own obstacles and challenges, and most of us have happiness as our end goal for the finish line. This first feature film from writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo is based on the real life struggles of his friend Brittany, whose photos are shared over the closing credits.
Jillian Bell stars as Brittany, a 28 year old New York City party girl dedicated to avoiding adult responsibilities. She struggles to make ends meet financially, yet manages to drink copious amounts of alcohol and partake in recreational drug use. A trip to a Yelp-referred doctor in hopes of scoring Adderall ends with a harsh realization when he asks if she is making "healthy choices" ... her BMI places her in the obese category. Suddenly her friends' claiming she is the funniest person in the room can be interpreted as Brittany using humor as a coping method - a trait she recognizes in another character later in the story.
This is no simple "chick flick" filled with punchlines. Well, OK, it has plenty of punchlines thanks to the comedic brilliance of Ms. Bell, however, the film is also loaded with the emotional burdens that accompany societal standards. It exposes the nasty side of human nature in how we treat those who are overweight, or not meeting the accepted standard of attractiveness, or not wealthy enough, or not fashion-oriented, or whatever other standard being applied at any given time. Brittany takes us on the emotional journey of seeking happiness and self-actualization when one is mired in insecurities and depression. It's a journey that can be tough to watch and tough to experience.
The underappreciated Michaela Watkins plays Brittany's neighbor Catherine, whose athletic and artistic façade camouflage her shattered marriage and the accompanying pain. Ms. Watkins clearly embraces offbeat projects, as evidenced by her role in BRIGSBY BEAR (2017) and by appearing with Jillian Bell in this year's indie gem SWORD OF TRUST. When Brittany laces up her Chucks and runs that first block, Catherine jumps in and invites her to join a runner's club. It's there that Brittany and Catherine meet Seth (Micah Stock), an out of shape gay man proving to his son he is a strong father that can be relied upon. We see all three become friends, and though Brittany may have motivated them to run the NYC Marathon, we see that each is running for their own reason.
Other supporting work is provided by Lil Rey Howery (GET OUT) as Demetrius, Brittany's brother-in-law and surrogate step-father via Skype; Alice Lee as Gretchen, Brittany's narcissistic vlogger roommate; and Utkarsh Ambudkar as Jern, Brittany's slacker co-worker turned friend turned romantic partner. Even though Jillian Bell owns the film as Brittany, each of the talented support cast brings depth to their roles, allowing these to be actual people to whom we can relate. It's a risky move casting so many improve comedians, but the result is quite impressive.
The film is loaded with life lessons and chuckles, and with that comes moments of cruelty, self-centeredness, insecurity and depression. Friendship is key here. Is someone your friend if they belittle you and keep you around so they feel better about themselves? Are we a good friend if we don't allow others to support and help us out in times of need? The message these days is to accept yourself, and find happiness in the type of person you are. Brittany shows us that finding yourself is a crucial first step, and that accepting yourself doesn't mean accepting bad habits and poor health. The film was well received at Sundance, and it's easy to see why ... much easier than running that first block.
now that you are here ...
Greetings again from the darkness. September 11, 2001 provided us examples of human nature at its worst, followed by human nature at its finest. Filmmaker Moze Mossenen begins with audio from the September 11 news reports playing over somber and beautiful shots of the Ground Zero memorial. We are immediately transported back to that fateful day, and the emotions come flowing back.
Rather than focus on the terrorists, Mr. Mossenen takes us to Gander, Newfoundland, a Canadian rock island on the far eastern shore of North America. A spectacular aerial view provides perspective for this remote village with a population of around 9000. Gander will forever be remembered as an example of human nature's finest. On September 11, 2001, when United States air space was closed, Gander airport became a landing spot and parking spot for 38 passenger planes.
We hear from Beverly Bass, an American Airlines Captain who was directed to land at Gander. We also hear from Air Traffic Controllers, passengers, and local Gander citizens, including a local TV personality and Police Chief Oz Fudge and Mayor Claude Elliot. One of the teachers at Gander Academy relays what it was like that day. The locals shared in the worldwide shock from the terrorist acts. They feared for their own safety as the breadth of the terror plan was unknown. They watched in wonder as plane after plane landed at their small airport. And finally, they kicked into gear realizing there were thousands of passengers on the planes ... each of whom were hungry, tired and frightened.
The "come from away" folks - Gander's terms for anyone from somewhere else - numbered 6700, nearly doubling the town's population. It took approximately 24 hours before the passengers could be taken from the planes, and in one of dozens of fascinating elements, we learn school buses are used for transport since the town only had 15 taxis. The local bus drivers were on strike, but all agreed to volunteer to drive the passengers to the churches, schools, and organizations providing shelter.
Mossenen does end up showing the footage of the planes hitting the towers, but it's important to know that this is a film of personal stories ... people doing extraordinarily kind things for those they don't know. The spirit of Gander was something to behold. Religious and cultural differences were overcome and hospitality was the norm. It's stunning to see the United States radar with zero planes in the air, but it's life-affirming to see folks serving those in need, expecting nothing in return.
The film excels while Gander citizens and the air passengers recollect those few days, but it loses a bit of steam towards the end. On the 10th anniversary of September 11, Irene Sackoff and David Heim began interviewing folks and collecting stories in order to write a musical of the events. And they succeeded. Yes, "Come From Away" became a Broadway hit, and the film shows those from Gander who made the trip to NYC to see the show. This is one time where the lights of Broadway pale in comparison to '101 ways to cook goulash'. The willingness to do what needed to be done is the inspirational message delivered by Gander. Neighborly love and generosity in the aftermath of tragedy turned this into a beautiful story ... the best of humanity. Moose stew anyone?
Greetings again from the darkness. What we expect in a documentary is a presentation of the topic in a manner slightly slanted towards the filmmaker's beliefs. What we hope for in a documentary is to learn something new or to be exposed to a different way of looking at a subject. We don't typically expect a great many laughs or even a film with significant entertainment value. For those who recall Morgan Spurlock's 2004 Oscar nominated SUPER SIZE ME, you likely won't be surprised that his latest is heavy on humor and entertainment, and a bit light on education. Still, his formula works - and we allow ourselves to be dragged along.
Spurlock kicks the film off by announcing that he wants to open his own fast food restaurant. He proceeds to confer with some celebrity chefs, a marketing firm, and a business strategist. Capitalizing on his success as a documentary filmmaker is a key element to the strategy, and of course, his mission is to once again expose the fast food industry for perpetuating myths of healthier fast food options.
He legitimately asks, "Have things gotten better?" We are meant to interpret this as ... have things gotten better since 2004 when Spurlock documented his self-imposed all-McDonalds food every meal for an entire month. It's at this point where the research kicks in. Facts and statistics are discussed. We learn that 44% of us eat fast food regularly, and that chicken overtook beef a couple of years ago as the protein of choice. We first assume this must be due to consumers making the "healthier" choice, but then we are informed that fried chicken outsells grilled chicken - and the gap is widening.
The most interesting segment of the movie occurs as the buzzwords and their meanings are discussed. Having "nutrition" broken down from a marketing perspective truly exposes the outright fraud being perpetrated on the public. "Health Halo" is the moniker applied to descriptions like "fresh", "all-natural", and "no added hormones". Even "crispy" is used in place of the more accurate "fried", which is obviously a word no consumer would associate with healthy food. Spurlock is in his element when providing a startling visual for what qualifies as "free range" according to the FDA.
'Big Chicken' is compared to 'Big Oil', as 5 corporations control 99% of the chicken farming industry: Tyson, Perdue, Pilgrims, Koch Foods, and Sanderson Farms. We get an explanation of how these corporations apply enormous pressure on the farmers, keeping them in a constant state of debt - or worse for farmer Jonathan Buttram who has been blackballed for helping Spurlock make this movie. Spurlock bounces from Columbus, Ohio to Boulder, Colorado to Tennessee to Kentucky to Washington, D.C, to Alabama; and from Chick-Fil-A to Wendy's to 7-11 to Popeye's, and even to McDonalds - Spurlock's first visit in 12 years to the establishment that put him on the movie map.
Very little new information is provided here, but Spurlock does what he does best - entertain with examples of extremes. While his "fried grilled" chicken sandwich is a publicity stunt, the real story is how menus and labels are used to manipulate the consumer, many who don't seem to much care.
A Million Eyes (2019)
grown up vs growing up
Greetings again from the darkness. Being a teenager is challenging. You want to be grown up and independent. But when growing up means losing your dad to war and having to look out for your alcoholic mom, well being grown up can seem overrated. Such is the life of 13 year old Leroy.
Played by exceptional newcomer Elijah M. Cooper, Leroy is a sensitive boy who totes around a battered 35mm camera that has a cracked lens. He doesn't know how the camera works, only that it feels natural to see the world through the viewfinder. Katie Lowe plays his mother, and she struggles to get through each day with the pressure of being a single mother while dealing with her grief. Most days her only relief comes from a bottle.
A minor scrap with the law puts Leroy in a Juvenile Detention Center, where his cellmate is an artist played by Shareef Salahuddin. Ironically, it's while serving his time that he learns about being an artist ... overcoming obstacles to create art. Once released, Leroy soaks up knowledge from an elderly neighbor (Joe Morton) who tutors him on the finer points of cameras and photography, plus the "magic" of film developing, the importance of light, and to guidance on shooting the truth.
Director Richard Raymond (SOULS OF TOTALITY, 2018 short), writer Curt Zacharias Jr (his first screenplay), and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke team up to create a terrific short film, and prove Leroy's adage, "the busted up things have the best story."
Official Secrets (2019)
Greetings again from the darkness. Doing the right thing is usually pretty easy. However a person's true character is revealed when it's not so easy. In 2003, doing the right thing became very difficult for Brit Katharine Gun. How difficult? Well, her decision could jeopardize her job. It's a decision that could get her husband deported. Making the choice could expose two powerful international governments and send her to prison for many years. And if that's not enough risk, how about a decision that could lead to a huge (possibly illegal) war, costing thousands of lives? So you know what Katharine Gun did? She did the right thing.
Keira Knightley stars as Katharine Gun. The film opens in 2004 with her facing a British court and the moment of her plea. We then flashback one year to see Katharine working as a staff member of GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters). She spends her days translating and compiling intelligence for the British Government. It's a job that requires the utmost discretion and the contractual obligation to keep work secrets at work. One day she reads a top secret memo making it clear that governments were conspiring to manipulate a United Nations vote required to authorize an invasion of Iraq.
Based on the (lengthy titled) book "The Spy who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion" by Martha Mitchell and Thomas Mitchell, the film is directed by Gavin Hood (the excellent TSOTSI, 2005) who co-wrote the screenplay with Gregory Bernstein and Sara Bernstein. It's presented as a moral quandary for Katharine. Say nothing and maintain the status quo in her personal and professional life, or speak up and risk everything noted above. We see Katharine's impulsive decision-making, and behavior that would rank her among history's least likely successful spies. It's actually her naivety that guides her to speak up.
The media side is also addressed here, and although some terrific actors are involved, this segment is the film's slickest and least realistic. Matt Smith plays political reporter Martin Bright and Rhys Ifans plays Ed Volliamy. The two journalists for "The Observer" worked together to verify the memo leaked by Ms. Gun, and Matthew Goode is Peter Beaumont, the editor who pushed to run the story. Previously, the paper had been an avid supporter of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and took many of their stories directly from information provided by his office. Running the story exposed the paper to scrutiny that it was not accustomed to.
Where the film excels is in exploring Katharine's personal turmoil. It's also where it fails us as viewers. As her personal story, the subject matter is a unique and rare look at the wheels of government intelligence. Unfortunately, an inordinate amount of time is spent on the media and reporting, and not enough on what emotional torture the year of waiting must have been for her. Ralph Fiennes plays Ben Emmerson, the lead attorney for Liberty - the legal organization who takes on Katharine's case. It's the legal wranglings of this complex case that make for extraordinary drama, and the fallout of her personal choices had the potential for disaster. All of this is covered in a cursory manner, when more detail would have added more heft to a fascinating story. This includes her run-ins with an MI5 agent played superbly by Peter Guiness. The Official Secrets Act of 1989 is mentioned about 10 times, even though we understand pretty quickly that actions against this law likely results in treason. Ms. Gun is a hero for exposing illegal government activity, and a more intimate look at her personal turmoil would have provided more suspense and a better connection for the viewer.
Greetings again from the darkness. We can't help but be drawn to that rare breed who possess a perfect blend of intelligence, humor, wit, and communication skills (whether written or oral). These people tend to make us laugh while they educate us and motivate us to think. Documentarian Janice Engel delivers a fascinating look at a fascinating woman, Molly Ivins.
With a subject like Molly Ivins, there is no question the time spent watching this will be entertaining; however, Ms. Engel doesn't miss an opportunity to dig a little deeper. Of course we see many archival clips of Molly delivering her own expertly chosen words - typically at the expense of some conservative politician, and we also are treated to personal insights from her siblings, as well as a couple of childhood/lifelong friends.
A traditional timeline is used for this anything-but-traditional woman. She stood 6 feet tall at age 12, and even as an adult she was a physically imposing presence in an occupation where women were still battling for acceptance. Her dad was a right-winger and she was a 3rd generation Smith College graduate, yet Molly remained an independent and (very) critical thinker ... delighting in exposing political corruption and incompetence. Her favorite punchlines typically skewered Texas politics and Texas politicians. A Master's degree from Columbia finalized her educational pedigree, but it was her colorful writing style that elevated her observations to a level of brilliance.
Molly Ivins once described the idea of objective reporting as "horse pucky". It's this type of honesty and straight talk that set her apart from so many reporters - both in her day, and even more so today. She knew and admitted that her own political views affected what she wrote, yet readers from both sides lapped up anything she committed to the page. That's not to say she didn't ruffle feathers. In fact, her feather-ruffling was world class. During her career, she held newspaper gigs in Minnesota, Austin, New York, Denver, and Dallas ... including The New York Times and The Texas Observer. Her column peaked when she was syndicated in more than 400 papers nationally. Molly Ivins was a big deal.
Others interviewed include Rachel Maddow, Dan Rather, Paul Krugman, and Ann Richards' daughter Cecile. Everyone loves to talk about a woman who brings a 6-pack of beer to a job interview, and referred to herself as the "resident communist". She admitted to being an alcoholic, and to being lonely at times; but the one thing she never did was sacrifice the work for personal gain. She wrote best-selling books, was a fabulous public speaker, appeared on TV and radio talk shows, and of course, spread her words on the page.
Molly Ivins was a wizard of words. She had much to say and many of us paid attention - whether we agreed or not. Her exceptionally strong and aggressive attacks on George W Bush might be what she is best remembered for, but "gang-pluck" may be a close second. Mostly we admire the tenacity and wit and genius that was the one and only Molly Ivins.
splash and moan
Greetings again from the darkness. This is not your father's Nature documentary. It's more like Mother Nature giving us a glimpse at her most beautiful, peaceful, ferocious and terrifying self. And it's just water. Simple H2O. Only it's not so simple. In fact, water takes many forms, and Russian filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky serves up some stunning water photography from around the globe.
The film begins with a rescue team working frantically to pull out a car that has fallen through the ice. When the camera finally does pull back, we see the vast space of the lake covered in ice. Other cars speed across the frozen body of water as if it's a sport or thrill for the driver. When another mishap occurs, we realize the tragedy is blamed on ice that has melted "3 weeks" earlier than usual. So we brace ourselves for another lecture on climate change.
It's a lecture that never comes. Surprisingly, there is no narrator. Perhaps Morgan Freeman signed a non-compete with the penguins. Kossakovsky allows the camera and nature to show the story, albeit with periodic musical accompaniment from composer Eicca Toppinen - sometimes with heavy metal chords, sometimes with soothing strings. Filmed in Greenland, Venezuela, Siberia (Lake Baikal), and Miami, Florida, where we see the effect of Hurricane Irma, water is shown in its glory. At times peaceful, at times violent. A sailboat captain fighting a storm might be followed by a breath-taking waterfall, which might be followed by a flooded town ... and even a swimming horse is photographed underwater.
Waves, glaciers, whales and dolphins combine for an unusual cinematic experience, and the most staggering sound comes courtesy of the ice moaning and water running. It's one best enjoyed with theatre screen and sound, and a film that will likely lose something even on the finest home systems. Filmed at 94 frames per second (rather than industry norm of 24 or 48), the visuals are truly breathtaking ... and sometimes disorienting. As George (on "Seinfeld") once said, "The sea was angry that day, my friend"; and now we have witnessed the anger for ourselves.
Before You Know It (2019)
family from the inside
Greetings again from the darkness. The world of cinema has been slow to evolve, but these days we are getting more projects with women telling stories about women ... and this one from director Hannah Pearl Utt, who co-wrote the script with Jen Tullock does it pretty well. Both also star in the film, and casting themselves proves very effective at delivering the message. I saw it earlier this year at the Dallas International Film Festival.
"Stage Manager" (and writer) Rachel (Ms. Utt) and actress Jackie (Ms. Tullock) are sisters who live a kind of bohemian lifestyle above a community theatre with their playwright dad (Mandy Patinkin) and Jackie's 12 year old daughter Dodge (Oona Yaffe). There are daily struggles with this family. Money is always scarce. Dodge is growing up fast. Jackie and Rachel have very few career options, and Dad is a stubborn man who had one successful play and many that were, umm, not so successful.
An unexpected development has the grown sisters accidentally discovering their mother is not deceased (as they had lived most of their lives believing), but rather a famous soap opera actress (a terrific Judith Light). The rest of the story has this broken family trying to connect, while overcoming the assumptions that had been made based on a family history created by trying to protect kids from the truth.
Humor is injected to help soften some of the more emotional and dramatic moments, and there is a sense that the story-telling of Woody Allen films was an influence ... plus there's a visual near the end that evokes memories of MANHATTAN. Supporting work is provided by Mike Colter ("Luke Cage"), Alec Baldwin, Tim Daly, Peter Jacobson and newcomer Arica Himmel. The film also tosses in a hilarious 'caterer' line in regards to fashion, a singing Manny Patinkin, and most importantly, some terrific insight from two talented filmmakers.
The German King (2019)
another unknown hero
Greetings again from the darkness. This is not a well-known story, but history is chock full of individuals who stood strong when times were dire. These courageous souls deserve to have their stories told.
Writer-director-producer Adetokumboh M'Cormack brings us one of these stories, and he is even his own lead actor, starring as Rudolph Manga Bell, a Duala King in Cameroon. Bell was a man of principle who inspired his people to resist the German takeover. The year was 1914, and World War I had only recently begun. The film is based on the true story of Kaiser Wilhelm's attempt to assume total power and control from Bell. When the Duala King resisted, the Germans made a martyr of him.
The 18 minute film is structured around Rudolph's final letter to his son Alexandre, who 30 years later would assume the position his father once held. Rudolph's letter to his son cautioned that history may judge him a traitor, but the respected king explained his motivation ... something that inspired his son and generations of Cameroon people. The film is well made and tells an important story that deserves to be more than a footnote in history books.
Vita & Virginia (2018)
muse and muss
Greetings again from the darkness. The historical landscape of relationships is littered with the remains of artist couples who began with a cosmic connection and ended with a sonic boom. Add in the socially toxic matter of same-sex attraction from a century ago, and you have a starting point for the romance-friendship-inspiration between writers Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf. Director Chanya Button co-wrote the script with Eileen Atkins, and it's adapted from Ms. Atkins play and the personal letters of Virginia and Vita ... correspondence that covered many years and hundreds of letters.
Gemma Arterton (TAMARA DREWE, 2010 and QUANTUM OF SOLACE, 2008) stars as writer Vita Sackville-West, a successful poet, novelist, and columnist. Vita was also known for her free spirited ways, and sometimes scandalous behavior. Virginia Woolf is played by Elizabeth Debicki ("The Night Manager", THE GREAT GATSBY), and she does really nice work capturing the troubled genius, and the glimmers of hope during her time with Vita. The two women were so very different in their approach to life and writing, although each faced their own challenges.
We see their first meeting, and the immediate enchantment that occurs as their eyes meet across the room. However, what makes their relationship interesting is the long and winding path to consummation. The interesting parts come as Vita toys with the fragile Virginia, though it's clear their connection is quite strong. Though the connection was strong, the relationship was quite complex. Vita was a fan of Virginia's talent. Virginia was an admirer of Vita's strength and confidence. They seemed to push each other - sometimes for the better, other times for the worse.
The film opens as Ms. Woolf's book "Jacob's Room" is being typeset and printed. It's quite an artistic way to show the mechanics of the process, and credit goes to Cinematographer Carlos De Carvalho for a segment that would typically be little more than filler. We learn about Vita's secretly "open" marriage to diplomat Harold Nicholson (Rupert Penry-Jones) and her constant battle with her mother Lady Sackville (Isabella Rossellini) over scandals and the family reputation. Virginia's husband Leonard (Peter Ferdinando) runs their printing business, and is seen as vital to his wife's emotional stability, despite the void in other marital aspects. Virginia's artist sister Vanessa Bell (Emerald Fennell) is quite an interesting character whose backstory (also a part of the Bloomsbury Group) is teased enough that she might deserve her own film.
The film features a couple of memorable lines of dialogue, both spoken by Vita. During a BBC radio program she boldly claims "Independence has no sex", and in an early discussion with Virginia states "Popularity is no sign of genius". Vita's brazen step traveling as a man with her previous lover Violet Keppel is mentioned, but mostly this is focused on the class differences and the 'snatched moments' for Vita and Virginia. Vita's exotic spirit and Virginia's struggle with mental health are made clear (even using special effects for the latter). "Visions" of conversations bring the words on the letter pages to life, though it does seem that the filmmakers played things a bit too safe in order to capture a mainstream audience. The music of Isobel Waller-Bridge (Phoebe's sister) brings a contemporary feel but it's at times in contrast to the high gloss presentation. For the women who wrote and inspired the amazing novel "Orlando", and led one of the more tumultuous historical lesbian affairs, it could be argued that they deserved a bit more risk taking on the big screen. Still, "X" marks the spot for Virginia's writing room, and we do understand why discretion might be the right call.
American Factory (2019)
two sides of failure
Greetings again from the darkness. In December 2008, General Motors shut down their truck plant in Dayton, Ohio, putting approximately 2000 employees out of work. Six years later, Chairman Cao Dewang, the founder of Fuyao Glass, invested millions to turn the shell of the plant into a retro-fitted factory and the first U.S. operation for his company - a company he claims owns 70% of the auto glass market. In doing so, the factory hired approximately 1000 locals, many of whom had not had consistent work since the GM plant closed years prior.
Co-directors Steven Bognar and Julie Reichert share an Oscar nomination (she has 3 total) for their 2009 documentary short, THE LAST TRUCK: CLOSING OF A GM PLANT. This time out, they have impressive access to a remarkable situation: a successful Chinese company opening a factory in the United States, and attempting to merge two distinctly different cultures. We hear much these days about globalization, and by the end of the film, you'll likely be re-defining the word.
This unique business model came with good intentions on both sides. The differences that start out as kind of funny and well-intentioned turn into hurdles that are nearly impossible to manage. Fuyao ships many workers from China to Dayton for the training of U.S. workers. These 'temporary' transplants must spend two years away from their family as they try to make sense of an unfamiliar land far different from home. Workshops are held for the Chinese workers as they are lectured on what makes Americans different ... they don't work as hard, they don't dress well, they talk too much on the job, they won't work overtime, etc. The Chinese blatantly state that they are superior to American workers - a point that's difficult to argue against when it comes to dedication, quality, and efficiency. We soon learn there is more to the picture.
U.S. labor and safety laws exist for a reason, and the Chinese company neither understands these, nor is very willing to abide by them. Additionally, since this is the 'rust belt', the shadow of unionization hovers from day one. While China's Workers' Union functions in sync with companies, U.S. labor unions are regularly in conflict with companies here. When the U.S. supervisors make a training and observation trip to China to see the Fuyao factory, the differences become even more obvious. The mostly overweight Americans show up casual - one even in a JAWS t-shirt - while the lean and fit Chinese are all in fine suits and ties. Morning shift routines are also contrasted to point out the gaps in discipline and attention to details.
What the filmmakers do best is allow us to see both sides of the issue. Surely the right thing to do is obvious when it comes to safety, and when Chairman Cao says the real purpose in life is one's work, well, we realize these two cultures are farther apart than the 7000 miles that separate them. It's a fair look at both sides, but for those who say U.S. companies are too focused on profit, they'll likely be surprised to learn that Chinese factory workers typically get 1 or 2 days off from work each month! As one of the dismissed American managers states, you can't spell Fuyao with "fu". The film seems to present a debate with lines drawn via citizenship and culture, and the contrast might be more relevant today than ever before.
mayhem behind the scenes
Greetings again from the darkness. Michael Wadleigh's 1970 film WOODSTOCK won the Oscar for Best Documentary, feature. The assistant director on the film was a 27 year old budding filmmaker named Martin Scorsese (three years before MEAN STREETS). The footage of the iconic bands, the groovy clothes, the heavy rain, and the mounds of trash fascinated those of us who wanted a taste of what the "peace and love" culture was all about. Co-directors Barak Goodman and Jamila Ephron take a different approach in honor of the festival's 50th anniversary in this project for PBS' "American Experience".
Rather than focus on the extraordinary music, this film provides a glimpse into the arduous process of "how" to put on a huge event. Three years prior to the festival, a business meeting between four gentlemen: John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfield and Michael Lang, began as a proposal to build a music studio in Woodstock, and instead evolved into a vision for an outdoor festival of music, art, and peace. This is the generation that fought in and protested the Vietnam War, saw their spokesperson Martin Luther King gun downed, and then had their savior Bobby Kennedy violently taken away. The youth of the counterculture were desperate for answers and hope.
Much of what we hear are recollections of those who were there. The memories and feelings of the time are presented as evidence of success. We also witness the behind-the-scenes obstacles and challenges faced by the event's promoters. All of this comes courtesy of some never-before-seen footage and photographs.
With construction having begun (stage, fencing, etc), the town of Wallkill, NY had second thoughts about having 50,000 hippies descend on their town. That's right. Initial estimates were off by about ten-fold to what actually happened. Five weeks prior to the festival, the town passed an ordinance prohibiting gatherings of more than 5000 people. This was a problem as acts were booked, tickets sold, and workers were being paid. Dairy farmer Max Yasgur offered up his 600 acre farm, and, frantically, the plan was revised and construction started anew. It was also very interesting to note that the word of the festival was spread through the alternative press. Of course, no social media existed at the time, so getting the word out to the country was especially challenging.
It can be argued whether the Woodstock festival held August 15-17, 1969 in Bethel, NY actually defined a generation, but there is no debating that pulling off such a peaceful event in the face of challenges like political backlash, bad weather, bad drugs, a food shortage, and a crush of humanity, was quite remarkable. No mention is made of the tragedy that unfolded a mere four months later at Altamont, but it's quite a contrast to the crowd control provided by Wavy Gravy of Hog Farm, the "freak out" tents for bad drug trips, and a community of citizens who emptied their pantries in order to provide food and beverage for thousands in need.
And yes ... we do get some samples of the music. We learn Richie Havens was the first act to go on stage simply because he was "there". He then proceeded to create his iconic "Freedom" spontaneously in front of the audience. Day 2 attendance jumped by at least 100,000 to experience Sly and the Family Stone, and of course, The Who. We get a glimpse of the first ever live show from Crosby, Stills and Nash, and hear farmer Max Yasgur's complimentary words to the crowd. Peace and Love indeed.
Ready or Not (2019)
Love Me Tender
Greetings again from the darkness. Rich people aren't like you and me (unless you happen to be rich, in which case you fall into the first category). Their houses are different. Their vacations are different. Their family traditions are different. And that's where this latest from co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillet (known collectively with Producer Matt Villella as Radio Silence) really kicks in. Yes, the Le Domas estate is a maze of dark wood, music rooms, and hidden passages, but it's the wedding day tradition of post nuptial game night that provides the thrills, chills, shocks and laughter for about an hour and a half.
Former foster child Grace (a star-making performance from Samara Weaving, THE BABYSITTER, THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING MO), is nervous and excited just before her wedding ceremony begins. Her husband to be is Alex Le Domas (Mark O'Brien), the black sheep of an ultra-rich family, and the ceremony is being held within the lush garden and fountain grounds of the Le Domas mansion. Grace loves Alex and seems to have come to grips with his family: alcoholic brother Daniel (Adam Brody) who is always hitting on her, Daniel's gold-digger wife Charity (Elyse Levesque), father and patriarch Tony (Henry Czerny) who is outspoken in his belief that Grace isn't good enough for the family, mother and matriarch Becky (Andie MacDowell) who seems confused about her feelings towards Grace, crazy-eyed Aunt Helene (Nicky Guardagni) who seems to hate all living creatures, and coke-head sister Emilie (Melanie Scrofano) who, along with her husband Fitch (Kristian Bruun) couldn't even get to the ceremony on time.
The above lineup of players is crucial because of what happens next. For wedding day game night, Grace draws the "Hide and Seek" card, rather than the much preferred checkers or Old Maid. There is a nice set up for this tradition which includes a Faustian deal made by Great Grandfather Le Domas. It's that deal that turns 'hide and seek' into 'hunt and kill'. Oh yeah, Alex forgot to warn Grace about the stakes and it's a blast to watch her transition as she figures it out. A torn wedding gown and yellow Chucks make up the visual of a bride fighting back against the antique weapons of crossbow, pocket pistol, elephant gun and battle-axe. You got it right - this family tradition is absolutely bonkers ... and bloody ... and deadly.
As has become the favorite pastime of Hollywood recently, the film torches the ultra-rich. But if you can overlook the political posturings, you'll find a devilishly fun irreverent farcical zinger that offers some similarities to CLUE and SLEUTH, as well as many other games and movies. It has some of the look of SAW, but with significantly more tongue-in-cheek. In fact, dark comedy thriller might be a proper description, but you'll likely find yourself laughing more often than jumping in your seat. It's a wonderfully crafted and paced film that understands exactly what it is ... an instant classic Midnight Movie (along with this year's SATANIC PANIC from director Chelsea Stardust).
Co-writers Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy take full advantage of the ominous setting and the wicked set-up, however, a minor quibble would be that the dialogue could have been a bit wittier. Most of the laughs come courtesy of the moment or the actors, and the banter falls just a little short. The prologue provides a 30 year ago flashback that cautions us for the ride we are about to take, and even offers some insight into the characters as much younger versions of themselves. The opening credit sequence is a beautifully staged and filmed running shot of some classic board games, informing us of the industry closely associated with the Le Domas 'dominion'.
It must be noted that a studio recently postponed the theatrical release of THE HUNT because of the political backlash to their premise - rich people hunting poor people. While the themes of these two films could be considered similar, only the most extreme hard-liners could view READY OR NOT as anything more than good demented fun. Much of the primary production was filmed on location at the Parkwood Estate in Ontario, and it's the perfect setting for a family that chooses murder and fortune over all else. Two standouts on the soundtrack include "The Hide and Seek Song" by Headquarters Music and "Love Me Tender" by Stereo Jane (definitely not Elvis). For those who enjoy the twisted comedy approach to in-law jokes and violence, there are plenty of macabre moments that will deliver a smile ... till death do us part.
Where'd You Go, Bernadette (2019)
Greetings again from the darkness. Has she lost her way or lost her mind? The Bernadette Fox we meet is a misanthrope. She doesn't much like her life. It's a life with a loving husband, a workaholic tech genius. It's a life with a crumbling, once majestic mansion that she is remodeling one spot at a time. It's a life with a smart daughter who admires her mother. It's a life that expects participation at a level Bernadette is unwilling to commit. And it's a life that is not the one she envisioned for herself.
Two time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett plays Bernadette, and as with most of her roles, she embodies the character. It's a role that more resembles that of her character in BLUE JASMINE than in CAROL. Bernadette is not really a likeable person and she clearly feels out of place in suburbia ... yet we find her interesting - in a train wreck kind of way. She's a bit reclusive and seems to best communicate with Manjula, her virtual assistant in India. The daily dictations come across as therapy as much as directives for such vitals as fishing vests.
Bernadette describes herself as a "creative problem solver with good taste" and as the self-proclaimed "B**** Goddess of Architecture". A mid-life crisis is pretty easy to recognize (unless it's your own). It's rarely about the person you sleep next to, and often about "finding one's true self". This syndrome is especially irksome for a parent, and is actually better described as selfish behavior. Bernadette was a rising star in the Los Angeles world of architecture, and when Microsoft bought her husband Elgie's (Billy Crudup) software, the couple relocated to Seattle where he could continue his high-tech pursuits. Bernadette stopped designing and focused on being a mother to daughter (and the film's narrator) Bee (Emma Nelson). In fact, it's Bee's request for a family trip to Antarctica that pushes Bernadette to the brink.
The supporting cast is brimming with talent. Kristin Wiig is Audrey, the neighbor and private school mom who manages to push every wrong button for Bernadette. Audrey is a victim of Bernadette's mean streak in one of the more outrageous scenes in the film. Zoe Chao is Audrey's friend and Elgie's new Administrative Assistant. Laurence Fishburne appears as Bernadette's mentor, and Judy Greer is underutilized in the role of psychologist. Others you'll recognize include James Urbaniak, Claudia Doumit, and Megan Mullaly. But despite all of that talent, this is Cate Blanchett's (and Bernadette's) movie. Is it a powerful performance or an overpowering one? I'm still not sure.
What is certain is that the Production Design of Bruce Curtis is exceptional. The old mansion is worthy of its own story, and provides a distinct contrast to Audrey's spit-shined coziness next door. The scenes on the ships at sea are also well done, and Bernadette in the kayak makes for an absolute stunning visual.
Of course the film is based on the 2012 best-selling novel by Maria Semple, and director Richard Linklater co-wrote the script with his ME AND ORSON WELLES collaborators of Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo. We typically discuss how an actor might be miscast, but this time the debate could be in regards to the director. Mr. Linklater is a wonderful director with such diverse films as BOYHOOD (2014), BERNIE (2011), BEFORE SUNRISE (1995) and DAZED AND CONFUSED (1994). He's a naturalistic story-teller with personalities we recognize. Bernadette looms so larger-than-life, with her grandiose gestures and over-dramatizing every moment that she's almost cartoonish at times. At times, Linklater seems like everyone else ... not sure what to make of Bernadette.
The film differs in many details from the novel, but the spirit remains. This plays like 'Diary of a Mad-Disgruntled-Unfulfilled Housewife', and it's obvious to viewers that Bernadette's near seclusion is actually her hiding from herself. Ms. Blanchett is a marvelous actress, one of the best of all-time. She is set to play the legendary Lucille Ball in Aaron Sorkin's planned LUCY & DESI film. Ms. Blanchett commands our attention for Bernadette, whether it's in the comedy segments or the more philosophical moments. Rarely will you see a film whose Act I and Act III are so tonally opposite. The first part plays like an old-fashioned Howard Hawks comedy, while the last part is Bernadette's more somber search for artistic expression once she is freed from the constraints of family life. It's the saddest comedy I can recall.
Nefta Football Club (2018)
music for your donkey
Greetings again from the darkness. Two men are hanging out in the desert anxiously awaiting the arrival of a donkey with headphones. The donkey is found, but not by the men. Instead two young boys accidentally discover the animal on the Algerian border, as well as the dozen or so bags of white powder being carried in the satchels on the donkey's back.
Minutes earlier the two boys were arguing about who is the best professional futbol player, and now the younger boy is convinced the substance is laundry detergent and that they will get punished for stealing it. The older boy has more ambitious ideas.
Writer-director Yves Piat delivers a 17 minute comedy-drama that reminds us sometimes 'ignorance is bliss', and also provides two key life lessons: always communicate with your partner, and never mix up Adele music with Hadel. This France/Tunisia production leaves us with a nice laugh.
Blinded by the Light (2019)
it's a Jungleland out there
Greetings again from the darkness. Last year we had Queen via BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, and so far this year we've had Elton John with ROCKETMAN and The Beatles with YESTERDAY. Thanks to writer-director Gurinder Chadha (BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM), our latest musical genius to receive the cinematic treatment is The Boss ... New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen. While this one is not a biopic of Bruce, it is based on the memoir ("Greetings from Bury Park") of British journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, who co-wrote the script with Ms. Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges.
Viveik Kalra stars as Javed, a Pakistani Brit living in Luton during the economic downturn of Margaret Thatcher's run as Prime Minister. It's 1987 and Javed faces racism and the struggles of a first generation Pakistan family pursuing their American dreams. He is a wanna-be writer who creates recession-era poems and politically-charged song lyrics for his best friend's pop-synth band. At home, his hyper-stressed father (Kulvinder Ghir) pushes to keep his ideals on track for the family - a vision which does not allow Javed to pursue a writing career.
Javed finds a supportive teacher in Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell), and things really change for him thanks to his energetic Sikh buddy Roops (Aaron Phagura) who introduces him to the music of Springsteen. Viveik Kalra is a relative newcomer, having only previously appeared in the TV mini-series "Next of Kin". He shines in this role, and never more than when he conveys the near-religious experience of being touched by music the first time. The more he listens to Springsteen, the more he relates. The music helps him find his voice as a writer, and equally importantly, his place in society.
Another relative newcomer to the big screen is the terrific Nell Williams, who plays activist and rebellious Eliza. She also happens to be the love interest for Javed, and the two are quite fun to watch together. It's a bit of a shame that the roles weren't expanded more for both Ms. Williams and Mr. Phagura. Both characters could have contributed more to the story. Dean Charles-Chapman plays Matt, Javed's long-time musician friend, and Rob Brydon has a comical appearance as Matt's dad - one who appreciates Springsteen as much as Javed.
The film weaves in the cultural challenges of Javed and his family, as well as some of the Pakistan traditions and the accompanying pressures. Filmmaker Chadha doesn't deliver a musical per se, but there are definitely some musical moments, including full production numbers that have us singing along. A few too many Jewish Springsteen jokes are included, and some may find the film a bit too light-hearted, but it's crafted for mass appeal while blasting some classics from the theatre speakers: Promised Land, Badlands, Thunder Road, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Born to Run, Because the Night, Prove it All Night, and yes, even "Hungry Heart". These songs are the inspiration for the movie, just as they were for Mr. Manzoor. Sure, there are some silly moments, but mostly it's an entertaining and inspirational message movie wrapped in BRUUUUUCE!
this band has "legs"
Greetings again from the darkness. The opening credits are still rolling when we hear the very familiar chords and vocal growls that kick off ZZ Top's mega-hit "La Grange". Director and music documentarian Sam Dunn delivers quite a celebratory tribute to this 'little ol' band', and it's likely that even their biggest fans will learn something new.
We first see the three band members as they drive a classic convertible right up to the front door of the historic Gruene Hall. Their subsequent jam session inside the rustic dance hall acts as a framing device throughout the film - proving they've still got "it". Director Dunn introduces us to each band member separately in the beginning. Dusty Hill walks us through his man-cave and explains his appreciation of Elvis both today and as a kid growing up in Dallas, and recalls playing with his brother's band The Warlocks. Frank Beard reminisces about playing regular gigs in Ft Worth and meeting up with Dusty first, and later with Billy. Billy Gibbons takes us through his early years in Houston, having some success with his band Moving Sidewalks, and opening for the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
The film moves takes a traditional timeline approach, but there is really nothing conventional about this band. Superfan Billy Bob Thornton describes ZZ Top as "unique and eccentric", and other admiring interviews include Steve Miller and Josh Homme. Discussed throughout is the "mystique" of the band, which apparently stems from their spurning of Los Angeles and New York, while choosing instead to blend Texas with Nashville. In the early days, many critics and music executives tried to label them a blues band, but Mr. Gibbons said it best when he stated they were "interpreters of the blues."
Director Dunn utilizes some animated sequences to fill in bits of the historical timeline, and that technique proves quite fitting when the band's music videos for MTV are described as presenting the band members as 'cartoon' characters surrounded by cool cars and beautiful girls. The influences of their manager Bill Hamm, and video director Tim Newman are noted, which goes to the underlying theme here. These 3 guys, despite incredible career success, remain quite grounded and humble.
It's been more than 40 years since I first saw ZZ Top in concert, yet I learned more about the band and these men during this film than over all these years. The origin of the band name and their commitment to experimenting with music and sound and stage shows are all details that stand out. It's said, "No one else looked like them. No one else sounded like them." The iconic beards were originally grown as disguises, but soon became trademarks ... although, ironically, drummer Frank Beard is the one without a beard! ZZ Top has played halftime of a Super Bowl and been inducted to the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, but having these guys tell their own stories confirms they realize how fortunate they are to have played with guys they want to play with for so long (they are the longest surviving rock lineup) ... this little ol' band has "legs".
Greetings again from the darkness. It's been 50 years since the horrific and tragic Tate-LaBianca murders, and that has caused a renewed fascination with that era in general, and the Manson family specifically. History has rightly labeled Charles Manson as a monster and a madman and a demented cult leader, but it's even more frightening to think of him as a human being ... and that's exactly what music documentarian Tom O'Dell does with his latest.
O'Dell examines Manson's dream of becoming a rock star. If you've read anything about Manson, you are likely aware of his interest in music and quasi-affiliation with Dennis Wilson, Terry Melcher and other movers and shakers in the 1960's music industry. But O'Dell digs deeper. We learn more of Manson's childhood and early exposure to music. We learn of his dreams to become a songwriter and musician, and how many recognized his raw talent. And most amazingly, we hear clips from Manson's actual recordings at Gold Star Recording Studio in 1967 ... including the quite unique "Garbage Dump".
O'Dell follows Manson's journey after his release from prison. Attracted to communal nature and music scene, Manson made his way to Northern California. The Haight/Ashbury scene made famous by The Grateful Dead appealed to him very much, and it's here where his charisma drew his first followers. Soon Manson and his followers headed to Southern California where the music scene was even more dynamic and offered even greater opportunity. He fell in with Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys, and Wilson's musical partner Gregg Jakobson provides some insight into what it was like to have Manson around.
Others interviewed include Rolling Stone magazine writers Anthony DeCurtis and David Felton, Dennis Wilson biographer Jon Stebbins, Manson biographer Simon Wells, and former 'family' member Dianne Lake. Ms. Lake was 14 years old at the time she was swept up by the family, and her recollections are quite chilling ... though fortunately for her, she left before the murders took place. It's through these interviews where we fully understand Manson's broken dreams, his magnetism, and his delusional state.
After being rejected by Terry Melcher (son of Doris Day), the highly successful music producer of The Beach Boys, The Byrds, and Paul Revere and the Raiders, Manson seemed to slip from reality, which fully formed the historical figure of which we are most familiar. It's quite interesting to note the effects on Dennis Wilson. The Beach Boys' drummer had fully supported Manson as a songwriter - taking the song "Cease to Exist" and changing the title to "Never Learn to Love" and adjusting the lyrics so the group could record it as a "B" side. Manson was paid for his original song, but this connection likely pushed Wilson over the edge after the murders.
The influence of The Beatles White Album and "Helter Skelter" (a song about a fair ride) are discussed, and we hear stories from sound engineer Stephen Desper and Manson's fellow ex-con Phil Kaufman about the recording and release of "Lie", Manson's only album. The story is filled with the best and worst of 'Sex, Drugs, Rock 'n Roll, Violence, and a Race War". We leave with a better understanding of how a rejected Manson corrupted a community built on love and peace. It doesn't soften the blow of the tragedy, but it does help explain. O'Dell's film works for those who 'know all about it' and those who are interested in learning more.