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8/10
look at this, not that
17 January 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. Every parent with young kids has been there. That feeling of exhaustion ... a sense of frustration and being beaten down. It's not about loving your kids, because you absolutely do. It's simply the nagging feeling that your own self is slipping away. Your "fun" self is giving way to someone in the mirror you don't recognize.

With two young kids and a third on the way, Alli (Maria Dizzia, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, 2011) and her husband Jacob (Greg Keller) epitomize the thirty-something couple described above. When a young couple moves in and proceeds to 'christen' their new apartment ... an apartment without curtains that is directly across the courtyard, Alli and Jacob come face-to-face with their reality. They are now adults whose 'wild' nights are fading memories.

Filmmaker Marshall Curry creates a believable and relatable situation - one that will have viewers either nodding affirmatively with how they react, or putting on some holier-than-thou huffiness trying to convince us they'd never stoop to this. The brilliant thing about Curry's film is that none of that matters. The point being made goes much deeper than peeping.

Hitchcock's REAR WINDOW is the most famous cinematic example of voyeurism, but in this one, Curry isn't trying to solve a crime or expose questionable behavior. Instead, he is displaying adulthood for us. It's a lesson in coveting the life of others. Most of the film takes place in an apartment, although there is a beautiful city lights shot when Alli steps onto the balcony. There is little surprise that this 20 minute short is Oscar nominated, since what begins with the bickering between two parents evolves into a life lesson most of us learn the hard way ... though perhaps not as hard as Curry's way.
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The Host (2020)
5/10
should have checked yelp
17 January 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. The success of Ryan Murphy's "American Horror Story" has inspired many writers and filmmakers to dive headfirst into the genre. The results have been mixed - some really creative works, and some ho-hum copycats. What has been interesting to watch is the genre-bending (or stretching) when what traditionally would have been a suspenseful drama or thriller, has elements of horror added to spice things up. That's my best lead-in for director Andy Newbery's film based on a story by Laurence Lamers, and adapted for the screen by Lamers, Finola Geraghty, Brenda Bishop, and Zachary Weckstein.

Sixty years ago this would have fit right in as an episode on "Alfred Hitchcock Presents", even down to the bookend therapy sessions led by the fine British actor Derek Jacobi as Dr. Hobson. He tells his patient (whose face we don't see) that his is "an unusual and disturbing case." We then 'see' the story unfold ... or maybe unravel is a better description. Robert Atkinson (played by Mike Beckingham, younger brother of Simon Pegg) is a bank employee enjoying a lunch break tryst with a beautiful woman. Sarah (Margo Stilley, 9 SONGS) just so happens to be married to Robert's boss, and she clearly has only one use for Robert since he has no money and his life is a mess.

It's not long before we discover Robert has many vices: gambling, smoking, drinking, and of course, romping with married women. In a moment that can be attributed to a desperate attempt to legitimize his existence, Robert nabs a 50,000 pound cash deposit from a new bank customer and promptly heads over to his favorite gambling hall. Things don't go well, and dumb-as-a-rock Robert is soon cutting a deal with Chinese cartel leader Lau (played by the always reliable Togo Igawa).

Robert's deal sends him to Amsterdam, a city where many things can go wrong - and often do. Local resident Vera Tribbe (Maryam Houssouni) offers Robert a room in her mansion, and, as we expected, things don't go well for him. Both the cartel and Robert's brother Steve (musician Dougie Poynter) are on the trail to find out what happened to Robert. DEA Agent Herbert Summers (played by Nigel Barber and his silky voice) is also involved, and what we find is a whole bunch of 'nothing good' thanks to the creepy rich Tribbe family,

Familiar faces pop up throughout the film, yet it's difficult to buy into the sense of dread when most of the characters are making the kind of dumb decisions that Geico riffed in their commercial about 'the running car' and hiding behind the chainsaws. The lessons are pretty simple. Don't steal money. Don't sleep with your boss' spouse. Don't agree to run an errand for the Chinese cartel ... or any other cartel flavor. Only if you can overlook the cluelessness of the characters will you find some entertainment value here.
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5/10
philosophical bad boys
16 January 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. "Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?" In this third entry of the franchise, those song lyrics are what we are asking cocky and aging Miami detective Mike Lowery (Will Smith). An old case comes back to haunt him and a scorned lover comes back to hunt him, and he may or may not have his old reliable partner Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) by his side.

It's been 25 years since director Michael Bay introduced us to 'Bayhem' with his first feature film, BAD BOYS. It took another 8 years for the sequel BAD BOYS II, and now 17 years later, we get this long-anticipated third film. Only instead of Michael Bay (who is listed as a producer and makes a cameo), Belgian directors (and former film school buddies) Adil El Arbi and Billal Fallah are directing. Fans of the franchise need not be worried, as the two expected and necessary elements are present: partner banter and Bayhem action. Detective Mike Lowery (Smith) is an old school bull with a badge, and Detective Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) is simply ready to ride off into the sunset of retirement as Pop-Pop with family, including his new grandbaby. Also back for his third run with the bad boys is stressed out Captain Howard played by Joe Pantoliano and the ever-present Pepto Bismol.

Isabel Aretas (Kate del Castillo) is sprung from jail in Mexico by her son Armando (Jacob Scipio). Mother and son have two missions: take back their drug cartel, and take revenge on those responsible for her arrest and the death of Isabel's husband. Oh yeah, Isabel is part-witch and a former lover of rookie cop Mike Lowery. What a tangled web ... and that's without including another surprise twist. Their revenge checklist includes many Miami dignitaries ... and a vow to make Lowery the last to die.

There is another surprise near the beginning of the film, and that motivates Lowery to get involved to help solve the string of murders - not yet aware that he's on the list. Of course Detective Burnett is drawn out of retirement and they are forced to work with a new Special Forces team called AMMO. Surprisingly, neither of the 'Ms" stand for Millennial, and instead it's Advanced Miami Metro Operations. The team is led by Rita (Paolo Nunez), another former Lowery lover, and includes badass Kelly (Vanessa Hudgens), hulky computer whiz Dom (Alexander Ludwig), and wise-cracking Rafe (Charles Melton) as a verbal sparring partner for Lowery.

What follows is car chases, shootouts, fancy weapons, drones, and helicopters. And lots of one-liners at stressful moments. Lawrence is especially effective with the banter, and fans will be happiest when he and Smith are jabbing back and forth. This time, much of their grief towards each other focuses on mortality and growing old. The partners are close, but their life philosophies vary greatly. Of course we do get the fiery finale, and this one involves a helicopter and a stunning hotel that's been left in ruins.

Chris Bremner, Peter Craig, and Joe Carnahan (originally slated to direct) wrote the script, and for the most part stays true to what the fans want - banter and action - while making note of the 17 years that have passed for these bad boys, "Ride together. Die together" always seemed like an absurd phrase for two cops, but the partner dynamics are in full force here, even though this movie (as well as the other two) are closer to live action cartoons than an actual police thriller. The end credits scene sets us up for BB4, and if they wait another 17 years, I calculate Will Smith will be 68 years old. Instead of a Porsche, he'll be driving a Buick.
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5/10
the first of three
16 January 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. Daniel Alfredson directed two of the three films in the original "Millenium" trilogy by fellow Swede, the late Stieg Larsson. He handled THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE and THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST. Alfredson has now signed on to direct a trilogy of films based on Hakan Nesser's "Intrigo" novellas. This is the first in the series, with "Dear Agnes" and "Samaria" coming soon (each with completely different casts).

Nesser's stories have been adapted for the screen by Alfredson and Brigitta Bongenheim, and they face the challenge of all crime stories making the move to movies ... how to create an equal level of suspense. Benno Furmann (JOYEUX NOEL, 2005) stars as David, a translator by profession who has written his first novel. We first see David on vacation with his wife Eva (Tuva Novotny, ANNIHILATION, 2018), who spoils his plans by telling him she is leaving him for her therapist. We next see him planning or imagining her death.

Flash forward three years and David has arranged a meeting with successful writer Alex Henderson (Sir Ben Kingsley, Oscar winner for GANDHI, 1982) in hopes of receiving advice on his debut novel. Their meeting takes place at Henderson's isolated island retreat, which serves as his primary residence away from 'people', the lot of whom he readily admits he doesn't much care for. Henderson agrees to let David read passages of his novel, and the 'cat and mouse' game is afoot.

David has been contracted to translate the final book of Austrian writer Germund Rein, who recently committed suicide (mysteriously) while at sea. As the twists and turns unfold, David begins to wonder if there is a connection between Rein and his own story. A simple cough heard while listening to a radio concert sends David on the road. He discovers a code within Rein's manuscript, and the film bounces between the multiple stories and layers.

When David's fiction crosses over with his own reality, it's our job as viewers to keep up and distinguish between the two. It's not always easy as the structure seems designed to confuse. On the other hand, some of the aforementioned twists and turns might as well have neon signs explaining what is about to happen, why it happens and how it is related to what has already happened. Because of this, the film lacks the tension suspense and conflict necessary for this type of story. Storytelling is the focus, but it's that storytelling that is the film's downfall. While it's always fun to watch Kingsley tear into a role, and some of the scenery is drop-dead gorgeous, we do hope the next two chapters of Nesser's books transfer better to the screen.
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8/10
we need more Katie Taylors
16 January 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. The reason for the delayed release is unknown to me (it was filmed in 2017), and has no bearing on the inspirational message and story provided by Nathan Pfaff's film. In this era of divisiveness and distasteful comments and judgments, it's a true pleasure to watch folks dedicating themselves to a cause that changes the lives of those less fortunate. Between 1941 and 1991 Apartheid racially divided the country of South Africa. The line between rich and poor was almost exclusively black and white, and even 30 years later, many of the impoverished citizens have been unable to improve their standard of living. When hope is lost, all is lost. And hope is what Hollywood casting director Katie Taylor was offering when she founded Film School Africa (FSA). For those raised in poverty, filmmaking was never considered a viable career option - it was for "them" not "us".

Ms. Taylor changed that in 2008 by offering eager youngsters the opportunity to learn filmmaking techniques. Her classes covered how to hold a camera, how to shoot a scene, editing techniques, how to effectively use music and sound, and the details of structuring a 3-act story. All of this was new to the first class of students, but the enthusiasm was infectious. It was clear, the class had made a difference for these students.

Eight years later, with a blossoming career in film, Ms. Taylor decided to leave it all behind and return to South Africa - making FSA her life's work. She sensed that "Art Therapy" could not only turn the personal lives of these students into fascinating film projects, but more importantly the skills she was teaching could offer the students a path out of poverty. These personal lives included abuse, alcoholism, poor nutrition, and overall challenging family dynamics.

We also meet Marie, a professional film editor and native to South Africa. Her work with FSA began as something temporary where she was helping out, but evolved into her being someone the students and Katie depend on. The enthusiasm and energy of these students makes us excited for them. We look forward to seeing clips of their work, and mostly we enjoy watching as they take on new skills and learn the value of collaboration and teamwork.

When asked what they want to accomplish with filmmaking, the students' answers include "be awesome" and "change the world." They get it. They know film gives them a shot they never dared dream of. It's easy to see that Katie Taylor has found her life's calling, and the students show her the ultimate respect by giving her the title "sisKatie". She is a mentor, yet so much more. One of the students describes her as becoming a mother to the black community. It's people like Katie Taylor who give us hope that the racial divide may one day vanish.
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6/10
yes this is our society now
12 January 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. While we can't dismiss it, we can surely question the popularity of those who have reached celebrity status via Reality TV or Social Media presence. Are these folks brilliant or simply cashing in on the ignorance and gullibility of the American public? That's the core question asked in this mockumentary from first time director Steven Jay Bernheim (and his 7 credited co-writers).

Thanks to shows like "TMZ" and "Entertainment Tonight", sites like Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube, and the seemingly endless supply of Reality TV series, it's no wonder we have come to accept that people can get famous for being famous. Julia Faye West (a no-holds barred performance) stars here as London Logo, a "celebutante" who has reached the pinnacle of fame by flaunting her lifestyle of excess. The obvious comparisons are Paris Hilton and the Kardashians. As with these real life celebs, we learn much more about London Logo than we would prefer to know. And that's where the fun begins.

And by fun I mean the type of twisted comedy presented by a mockumentary that has us questioning why our society heaps so much attention on those represented here by London Logo. She has her entourage comprised of actor-friend Angelina Streisand (Denise Richards), her image-salvaging PR manager Winston Spritz (Loren Lester), her personal designer Simon Debris (John R Colley), and her manager/agent Louis Lozenger (Ben Begley). You have likely noticed that the character names are punchlines unto themselves. Adding competition to the incredulity is London's nemesis and arch-rival Kristy Kim (Candace Kita), one of the Kim sisters from the (pretend reality) show "Katching Up with the Kims". One of Kristy's most prominent features is her large hind-quarters, making her real life comparison quite easy to place.

Most of the film is based on the "tell-all" documentary being filmed by British TV journalist Diana Smelt-Marlin (Kate Orsini), who affords London every opportunity to explain her actions and motives. The interviews are pure gold in eye-opening (and eye-rolling) cluelessness. This is the documentary that makes this an effective mockumentary. The cameras follow London around as she tries to bounce back after the Kims have stolen "her thunder", and a beach incident captured on camera sends London to jail.

Book deals, TV shows, cosmetics, music drops, private jets, Twitter followers ... all of these play a part in London's attempt to keep her name in lights. Along the way we are treated to some outlandish bits. These include her pet gerbil getting stuck in the toilet (and the first Richard Gere joke in years), which results in a visit from Joe the plumber played by the recently deceased talented character actor John Witherspoon. There is also a Larry King style talk show host (Charles Fleisher), regular 'breaking news' from a TMZ knock-off, hilarious throw-pillows, London's "traumatic brain injury", unfortunate spelling errors, an opportunistic pet whisperer, and a questionable celebrity stalker.

London's wealthy parents are played by Jill Jacobson and Cliff De Young. Dad is at a loss of words when asked to describe his daughter, while mom proudly states "busty". London even attempts to reconcile with her TV partner played by Shelli Boone, in an attempt to reunite for their "Heir Heads" show (you have to say it out loud). Ralph Rieckermann, former member of the rock band The Scorpions, plays a DJ named Messiah, and the titles of competing books by London and Kristy are not to be missed. Boxing legend Mike Tyson makes an appearance attempting to provide evidence showing that he was not the other participant in the sex tape titled "A Night in London" ... and his evidence is pretty compelling.

Mr. Bernheim's film not only stars his wife (Julia Faye West), but it also points out just how much work is involved in getting and staying famous. It's a full-time job! There are so many gags throughout, and of course, most of the acting is purposefully over-the-top. These days, it's almost impossible to take things too far ... what captures the attention of the American public is usually about as disappointing as finding out the world's smallest dog isn't really a dog, and that hipsters aren't homeless ...they just look that way. The best advice here is to sit back, relax, and spend an evening laughing at our society. So many already are.
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8/10
the strength of separated sisters
12 January 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. Masterful storytelling when combined with expert filmmaking is a treasure to be appreciated and enjoyed, even if the story is not so pleasant. Such is the case with this gem from writer-director Karim Ainouz, who adapted the screenplay with Murilo Hauser and Ines Bortagaray from the novel "The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao" by Martha Bathala. Based in Rio de Janiero, the film blends the vibrant colors of the area with the traditional and restrictive Latin American family expectations of the 1950's.

The story spans 5 or 6 decades, and when we first meet sisters Euridice and Guida, it's clear they share a tight emotional bond that goes deeper than blood. Though their personalities differ greatly, they are both ahead of their time and out of step with the conventions of the era. Euridice (a strong performance by Carol Duarte) longs for independence and aspires to be a concert pianist after a hoped-for Conservatory in Vienna, while Guida (a powerhouse Julia Stockler) is a dreamer seeking true love, and whose party girl ways must be kept hidden from their conservative father. Both young ladies are spirited, yet respectful.

Their lives are forever altered when Guida runs off to Greece with her sailor lover. As is too often the case with young dreamers, she returns home once her spontaneous choices prove to be poor judgment. Her father rejects his pregnant daughter since, in his eyes, she has disgraced the family. The parents mislead Guida about her sister's whereabouts, so Guida assumes Euridice is off at conservatory fulfilling her dreams. This sets Guida off on her own solitary path.

In actuality, Euridice has married and experienced one of the worst ever wedding nights, featuring what is likely cinema's most unsexy bathroom lovemaking scene. There is an element of horror films to this segment of the film, as the sisters are living their worst nightmares, while being separated from each other ... unable to communicate. The male-dominated Latin culture and family traditions prevent their mother from 'disobeying' the father's order, so the cruel lie continues as the sisters unknowingly live their lives within the same town. There is even one excruciatingly painful-to-watch scene that finds them in the same restaurant at the same time, yet oblivious to the presence of the other.

Each woman's inner-strength pushes them forward. Guida (now Gisele) befriends a wise former prostitute Filomena (an excellent Barbara Santos) who becomes her mentor in poverty. Euridice tries to make the best of her situation while keeping her dream alive. Mostly what we have is a tragic story without one specific tragedy - other than the daughter spurned by her father. There are so many moments of pain and frustration, with undelivered mail being among the worst. The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Helene Louvart, and it reminds us that 'life happens', and it's not all love and Bach. This is an emotional and heart-breaking story, and devotees of The Lifetime Channel will likely be disappointed in the ending. For me, I have no qualms about the emotional wringer the film puts viewers through - even after the opening scene foreshadowing.
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8/10
new kid on the block
12 January 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. Being the new student in school can be an emotionally trying experience for some kids. Now take that pressure and put it in a patrol car for law enforcement in a tough part of town where racial and religious tensions are always on edge. The 'new kid' in this case isn't a kid, but rather an adult cop ... and the experience will eclipse 'trying' and shift directly to life-altering. "Ever since 2005 ..." is a line that reminds us that the Paris riots of that year remain fresh in the minds of locals, and police harassment is applied to most every stop or interrogation. This is an area that has yet to reclaim balance and writer-director Ladj Ly, having grown up in this part of the city, is more qualified than anyone to tell these stories.

Montfermeil is the Paris suburb where Victor Hugo wrote his classic 1862 novel "Les Miserables". Recently divorced Stephane (played by Damian Bonnard) has transferred to the Anti-Crime Squad (ACS) in the area to be closer to his young son. His first day on the new job involves riding on patrol with local officers Chris and Gwada, who are veterans of these streets. Chris (played by Alexis Manenti) is a racist, hardened by the locals who have nicknamed him "Pink Pig". Chris's intimidation methods are old school and iron-fisted. Gwada (played by Djebril Zonga) is an African-Muslim who tries to capitalize on his own roots with locals, even though they now consider him a traitor.

Immediately obvious is the fact that Stephane's 'by-the-book' approach doesn't meld with the forceful posture assumed by Chris and Gwada. "Greaser" is the nickname Chris gives to Stephane, emphasizing that the new cop doesn't fit on the streets or in the patrol car. As the prime example of how this environment can cause a small situation to escalate quickly due to one wrong word or movement, a young thief named Issa takes a lion cub from a travelling circus as a prank. The next thing we know, the Muslim Brotherhood is involved and threats are flooding every interaction, creating tensions for all. When the cops finally track down Issa, an accident occurs that further escalates the tensions between various street factions and the cops. Things get really ugly when it's discovered a young boy captured the event with his drone.

Director Ly opens on citywide excitement at the 2018 World Cup with a backdrop of Paris sites such as The Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe. The script from Ly and co-writers Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti doesn't allow us to wallow in the happiness for long. Soon, we are on the streets with the cops in Victor Hugo's (and Ly's) setting - contemporary only in look, not feel or substance. We are dropped into an environment where each moment is dictated by racial-social-political lines. Foot chases, car chases, and confrontations are de rigeur. Disenchantment cloaks kids and adults alike, and the fear of anarchy never wanes. A bad day for Issa turns into maybe the worst ever first day for Stephane. This is one of the year's most incredibly tense and gripping films, and one that leaves us exhausted and dumbfounded. It's a brilliant work.
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Underwater (2020)
5/10
survival thriller more than creature feature
10 January 2020
Warning: Spoilers
Greetings again from the darkness. The opening credits have an "X-Files" look and feel. Newspaper headlines and redacted reports zip by ... in fact, the rapid cuts are so quick that very few viewers will be able to keep up. Even if you haven't finished your Evelyn Woods speed-reading course, the gist is clear: there is a (very) deep-water drilling lab located 36,000 feet below the ocean's surface. Yep, that's almost 7 miles deep for the crew of 316, and some mysterious bad things may or may not be lurking. That's really our only set-up ... unless you want to count Kristen Stewart brushing her teeth.

It's literally less than 5 minutes in when the rig is rocked by an explosion of some kind. We are told the structure is 70% damaged. The survivors are quickly identified. Nora (Ms. Stewart) and Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie) are together in the immediate aftermath. Nora is a mechanical engineer and computer whiz. They soon come across a co-worker buried in rubble. It's wise-cracking TJ Miller and his (actual) stuffed bunny. Next up are the Captain (Vincent Cassel) and lovebirds Emily (Jessica Henwick) and Smith (John Gallagher Jr). With no time for early character development, we learn tidbits as their perilous journey hopefully leads them towards rescue. Of course anyone who has ever watched a movie can tell you, they won't all make it. Maybe the 8 year old girl sitting in the row behind me wouldn't know that ... but no parent should take their 8 year old to a PG-13 movie that has "terror" in the parental warnings.

Director William Eubank and co-writers Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad create plenty of tension, danger and suspense. The movie is at its best when they let the moment speak. It's the dialogue that is mostly cringe-worthy, as well as the predictable and unnecessary jump-scares. These people are stranded miles deep in the ocean and are running out of oxygen and options ... and are being chased by something they can't identify. The visual effects are successful in generating the environment of danger and claustrophobia.

It's in the little things where the film falters. When we first see the Captain, he has his arm in a sling. He's obviously injured. Once the bulky underwater suits are donned, his bad arm seems just fine ... he's even pulling one of the others with a rope! Nora makes a big deal about being the "smallest" of the group and volunteers to explore a narrow passage. The problem is that they are all wearing the same suits - a fact that should negate any advantage of Ms., Stewart's slim, toned body. Lastly, the film has borrowed heavily from James Cameron's classic ALIEN. In fact, it has been referred to as "Underwater Alien". Of course, this film isn't nearly as well-rounded or complete as that one ... but then few are.

Mr. Eubank's film is a sci-fi/horror mash-up, but it's really more a survival thriller than science fiction or creature feature, although the sea creatures have their moments. Cinematographer Bojan Bozelli does a nice job in keeping with the 'play it straight' approach, and his camera work is complemented by the electronic score from Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts. Ms. Stewart and her buzzed blond hair hold their own amidst the danger. A blatant lecture about how we are going places (deep sea) we shouldn't go and doing things (drilling) we shouldn't do is included for those who might not figure it out on their own, but mostly we spend our time trying to figure out how to survive the deep sea pressure with little oxygen and no escape pods. Just leave the 8-year olds at home.
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Like a Boss (2020)
5/10
not hideous, but no thing of beauty
9 January 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. It's no secret that all movies aren't made to appeal to all movie goers. Even for someone like me who watches an average of 5 movies per week, there are going to be some that are simply not in my wheelhouse. In the case of this latest from director Miguel Arteta (BEATRIZ AT DINNER, 2017), it seems to have been formulated as a "Girls Night Out" treat ... a sub-genre with a track record of success.

Although I'm not the target market, I'm not precluded from commenting on the film and making observations. It merely means I've watched the movie from a different perspective than many paying customers will. So let's start with the positives. The cast is excellent. After being wasted and miscast is last year's disappointing THE KITCHEN, Tiffany Haddish is cut loose and allowed to do what she does best - searing one-liners peppered with raunchiness. Rose Byrne has long been what was once called a comedy "straight man." Of course that term is no longer used, but I'm not sure what today's acceptable terminology is. The simple fact is, very few people are as brilliant as Ms, Byrne at playing off an acid-tongued comic. She is a rare talent. As for Salma Hayek, her body of work (and Oscar nomination for FRIDA) speaks for itself.

Mia (Ms. Haddish) and Mel (Ms. Byrne) have been friends since childhood, and are now roommates, best friends, and business partners at the beauty/cosmetic company they founded. The creative and shoot-from-the-hip Mia and the pragmatic and meticulous Mel are personality opposites to the point that Mel has been reticent to explain their serious financial woes to the always upbeat Mia. When cosmetics tycoon Claire Luna (Ms. Hayek) makes an offer to save the struggling company, Mel welcomes the financial relief, while Mia senses trouble.

As you would guess, Mia is right ... Claire Luna has darker motives, and soon she is driving a wedge between the two partners and friends. The talented supporting cast includes: Jennifer Coolidge, Billy Porter (who manages to remain flamboyant while being subdued for him), Ari Graynor ("I'm Dying Up Here"), Jessica St. Clair, and Karan Soni (DEADPOOL) as Claire's assistant. There is also a cameo near the end for those who enjoy a bit of friendly comedy.

Danielle Sanchez Witzel, Adam Cole-Kelly, and Sam Pitman combined on the story and script, and have inserted a few gags that play to the strength of the cast - pot smoking ghost peppers, and boyfriend humor are all at play, and balanced by the strength of female friendships. The business side is so cartoonish (especially Ms. Hayek's character) that it will likely somewhat offend anyone who actually runs a company, but the raunchy humor and overly emotional character reactions will likely satisfy the intended audience.
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Just Mercy (2019)
6/10
a man of action and of his word
9 January 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. 2019 movie year brought us BRIAN BANKS, CLEMENCY, and now JUST MERCY. Three movies centered on death row and racism in the justice system. Being imprisoned for a crime one didn't commit is simply something most of us can't fathom. Add in the death penalty, and it truly becomes a horrifying tragedy. Bryan Stevenson is a Harvard Law graduate who founded Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization whose mission is to get innocent/wrongly convicted people off of death row.

Filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton (SHORT TERM 12, THE GLASS CASTLE) brings Mr. Stevenson to the screen through the story of Walter "Johnny D" McMillian. Mr. McMillian was so obviously not guilty, that the road block set up to stop him on his way home from work speaks to the deep-rooted racism embedded in an Alabama police force so desperate to solve the murder of a white woman. Oh, and the town is Monroeville. The same town where Harper Lee wrote "To Kill a Mockingbird." Cretton's script, co-written with Andrew Lanham (THE GLASS CASTLE) follows attorney Stevenson's efforts to unravel the racism and miscarriage of justice.

Michael B Jordan plays Bryan Stevenson, and Oscar winner Jamie Foxx plays Walter McMillian. Their shared scenes are extraordinary, and bring out the best in Mr. Foxx. Oscar winner Brie Larson (Mr. Cretton's good luck charm) plays Stevenson's assistant Eva Ansley, a hard-working idealist, who unfortunately is given little to do here. Tim Blake Nelson makes quite an impact as Ralph Myers, a convicted murderer with a twitchy delivery - and the state's only witness against Walter. Rafe Spall is the corrupt DA with a southern accent that is painful to our ears, and Karan Kendrick plays Walter's wife Minnie. In an all-too-brief turn, O'Shea Jackson plays death row inmate Anthony Ray Hinton, whose story could just as easily be at the center of movie like this one.

The film opens in 1987 and continues through McMillian's re-trial in 1992. Along the way Mr. Jordan effectively portrays a man that realizes things are much worse than he anticipated. The film is based on Stevenson's 2014 memoir "Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption", but it's Mr. Foxx who excels here. He conveys the feelings of resignation that the man has for his situation ... a situation so beyond his control, and one that he understands is biased against him. Watching McMillian come to trust Stevenson through actions rather than words, is exceptional acting by Foxx. We've seen how hope can be a dangerous thing on death row, and it's certainly an emotion that Foxx's McMillian is slow to embrace.

Bryan Stevenson is now a world renowned Civil Rights attorney and his foundation has made a difference for many convicts. He continues to fight against a racially-biased system, and it does seem that the attention is causing a change in attitudes. The movie comes across a bit slick and formulaic for the message it carries, but perhaps that's by design so that more people will give it a watch. The intent is certainly admirable.
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The Sonata (2018)
6/10
music for the soul
9 January 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. A throwback to 1970's cinema is easy to appreciate, whether it was intended or nor. Writer-director Andrew Desmond's debut feature film certainly serves up the feel and style of so many of those low-budget horror films I watched as a youngster (many, it seemed, featured the late Roddy McDowall). Mr. Desmond and co-writer Arthur Morin (also his first feature film screenplay) likely viewed some of those same films, as this one succeeds in capturing the same creepy tone.

For some, the music they create comes from their soul ... it makes them who they are. For these musicians, their obsession and quest for perfection can be off-putting to others. In an early sequence, we see young violist Rose Fisher (Freya Tingley, "Once Upon a Time") react to news of her father's death by shrugging and stating she wants to continue with her recording session. See, Rose's father deserted the family when she was a toddler, and the two never spoke again. Richard Marlowe (Rutger Hauer) was an exciting and brilliant young composer when he chose to drop out and live as a recluse (think Salinger). He's even compared to Pink Floyd founding member Syd Barrett. Rose chose to never use her genetics as a springboard to success; never even telling her manager Charles Vernais (Simon Abkarian, CASINO ROYALE) of the connection.

Rose visits Marlowe's house, and before learning of the startling manner in which his life ended, she discovers his final composition locked away in a drawer ... a violin sonata seemingly left for her to find. Neither Rose nor Charles recognize some of the non-musical symbols included on the sheet music, but it's clear there are elements of genius in the piece. While Charles envisions piles of cash to be made by capitalizing on this situation, Rose sets about tracking down clues to the unknown symbols by exploring her father's estate.

It should be noted that Marlowe's "house" is actually the 19th century Cesvaine Palace, and it makes a wonderfully gothic setting for this story. This sub-genre of horror films is always best when the setting is a creepy old mansion/castle, and includes a mysterious housekeeper, other-worldly children, a leather-bound book of secrets, and a subterranean room (this one is beneath a chapel) with curious wall murals telling some forbidden legend of the occult. The only element missing here is vicious dog that pops up periodically.

The symbols lead to a French secret society, and in their own ways, both Rose and Charles learn that finishing Marlowe's final piece will conjure the Anti-Christ. While Charles pursues greed, Rose pursues the music. Spoken words pale in comparison to the music Rose creates. Screen veteran James Faulkner appears as Sir Victor Ferdinand in a vital supporting role. While it's a bit disappointing that the late, great Rutger Hauer has very little screen time, it's quite enjoyable to watch Ms. Tingley carry the lead. Mr. Desmond filmed in Latvia, and delivers a film that fits quite nicely for those who enjoy the creepy throwback horror style.
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6/10
a note of pain
8 January 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. The title refers to a sacred Jewish ritual where the names of the Holocaust victims are recited in a musical style. It's a process that (sadly) covers a few days. In this film, it takes on a personal, as well as historical, significance. British cultural affairs expert Norman Lebrecht wrote the 2001 novel on which writer-director Francois Girard (THE RED VIOLIN, 1998, plus plays, operas and 2 Cirque de Soleil shows) and co-writer Jeffrey Caine based the film.

We open in 1951 London just minutes before the scheduled performance of young violin virtuoso Dovidl "David" Rapoport. He is to play Bruch and Bach in a concert sponsored by his "adoptive" father figure Gilbert Simmonds, who has sunk his entire life savings into producing the concert. Despite the assurances of Simmonds' son Martin, who has become like a brother to David, the featured performer is a no-show ... leading Martin to search for him over the next 35 years.

The film covers the story from the time Dovidl's Polish-Jewish father (played by Jakub Kotynski) agrees to his leave 9 year old, a violin prodigy, with the non-Jewish Simmonds in an attempt to protect the boy from the German invasion of Poland in the late 1930's. As Dovidl and Martin grow together, their bond become stronger. Martin is present when Dovidl renounces Judaism, even as becomes more proficient with his instrument and more saddened by the Holocaust that he avoided in his home country.

Both boys are played at three different ages by three different actors. Dovidl is played by Luke Doyle at ages 9-13, Jonah Hauer-King at ages 17-23, and by Clive Owen in middle age. Martin is played by Misha Handley at ages 9-13, Gerran Howell at ages 17-23, and by Tim Roth in later life. The actors do a good job of capturing Martin's early irritation at Dovidl's arrogance, the shock of the no-show betrayal, and the later in life man who changed everything when he found out about his family, as well as the music teacher so desperate to find his long lost friend/brother.

The film bounces between the three timelines so that we have a full picture of the impact they have had on each other's lives, and how Dovidl's disappearing act was quite devastating. Much of the film centers on Martin tracking down leads and talking to folks for some idea of the path taken by Dovidl. Mr. Roth is especially effective (and surprisingly understated) in his performance as a man haunted by the unexplained actions of a loved one. His wife, played by Catherine McCormick, is simultaneously understanding, patient, and emotionally affected.

Stanley Townsend plays Martin's father. He cares for Dovidl as if her were a son, and provides what's necessary for the prodigy to develop and be groomed for performance. Three-time Oscar winner Howard Shore delivers a score that follows the good times and bad, not an easy task for a family drama within the shadow of the Holocaust. One specific sequence stands out, and it is filmed on the hallowed grounds of Treblinka - now a memorial, where the extermination camp once stood.

There are many facets to the story, and most involve heavy emotions. We see children bearing more than they should. Parents protecting their children in times of crisis. The difference between religion and ethnicity is discussed. Broken trust proves especially damaging. Dovidl's disappearing act could be compared to that of JD Salinger, in that he seemingly disappeared for years. And maybe most of all, the idea of survivor's guilt is a theme, as Dovidl explains, "You don't have to be guilty to feel guilty." The film may have some pacing issues, but it affords such a wealth of conversation topics, that any flaws are easily forgiven.
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Three Christs (2017)
5/10
in Gods we trust
8 January 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. Based on the actual events documented in the book "The Three Christs of Ypsilanti" by Social Psychologist Milton Rokeach, the film turns ground-breaking work from 60 years ago into a generic, somewhat bland big screen production ... albeit with a talented cast. Director Jon Avnet (FRIED GREEN TOMATOES, 1991) co-wrote the script with Eric Nazarian, and they evidently believed the strong cast would be enough. Instead, we get what in days past would have been described as the TV movie of the week.

The actual story is quite interesting. Dr. Alan Stone (the dramatized version of Dr. Rokeach) is played here by a blond-haired Richard Gere. Dr. Stone comes to Michigan's Ypsilanti State Hospital in 1959 to study delusions of schizophrenics. Up to that time, we are informed that only extreme treatments were utilized, with minimal psychoanalysis practiced. Dr, Stone's approach is through therapeutic treatments. Specifically, he arranges for group therapy consisting of only three patients - each who claims to be God/Christ. Leon (Walton Goggins) demands to be addressed as God. He is the most perceptive of the three, though it's quite clear, he mostly wants a friend. Joseph (Peter Dinklage) says he is Jesus Christ of Nazareth, though he speaks with a British accent, listens to opera, and wants only to return to England (a place he's never been). Clyde (Bradley Whitford) claims to be Christ "not from Nazareth", and he spends much of each day in the shower attempting to scrub away a stench that only he can smell.

The film is at its best, and really only works, when the doctor and the three patients are in session. It allows the actors to play off each other, and explores the premise of how they go about working through the confusion of having each believe the same thing ... while allowing Dr Stone's approach to play out. Where things get murky and clog up the pacing are with the number of additional characters who bring nothing of substance to the story. Stone's wife Ruth (Julianna Margulies in a throwaway role) pops up periodically with alcoholic tendencies or a pep talk for hubby. Stone's young research assistant Becky (Charlotte Hope, "Game of Thrones") seems to be present only as an object of desire for all the Gods, and to remind us of the era's drug experimentation. And beyond those, Stone carries on a constant battle with hospital administrators played by Kevin Pollack, Stephen Root, and a rarely-seen-these-days Jane Alexander (we shouldn't forget she's a 4-time Oscar nominee).

Alec Baldwin's "I am God" from MALICE is still the best, but it's always fun to watch a God complex ... and this film offers four. The story is bookended with Dr Stone dictating his preparatory notes for a hearing on his professional actions, and the film does serve as a reminder that electroshock therapy and severe drug therapy are likely not as effective as empathy for many patients. It's rare that God, Freud and Lenny Bruce are all quoted in the same film, but mostly this one just never pushes far enough.
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7/10
is that you on the line?
26 December 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. If there is a phone booth present, we are usually watching a movie that is at least 20 year old, or one that is set in the past. But not this time. Writer-director Kristen Gerweck tells us the film is set in 2012 on a Cliffside in Otsuchi Japan. We are also informed that the story is inspired by true events.

We only hear one end of the conversations at a time, and at first we don't understand how the seven people - strangers to each other - are connected by the phone. What we do see is a gorgeous seaside view with an oddly placed phone booth. The performances are as exceptional as the view.

The film has a haunting feel contrasted with the beauty we see. This is only Ms. Gerweck's second short film, and it has been well received on the festival circuit. With elements of an episode of "The Twilight Zone", her film delivers a curious, tension-packed few minutes.
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8/10
history is key
26 December 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Kids say the darndest things. And those letters to Santa Claus might pack a bigger punch than we imagine. It's December 20, 1989 and a father and son are setting up their Christmas tree in their apartment in Romania. History buffs will connect the date with this story and fully recognize the genius in writer-director Bogdan Muresanu's 23 minute film.

During the normal chit-chat with his dad, young Marius mentions that he mailed his letter to Santa today, and it included his Christmas wish ... Uncle Nic to die. Childhood innocence is on display as the boy sincerely thought he was fulfilling his father's wishes - based on what he had heard in his own home. Dad explodes in a rage of fury. He is genuinely frightened for the safety of his family ... to the point that he's willing to break into a post box to steal back his son's letter before it's read.

Of course, all of this makes perfect sense when we learn that Uncle Nic is really Nicolae Ceausescu, General Secretary of the Communist Party in Romania. We as viewers know what the next 24 hours holds, but the father is simply trying to protect his family.
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7/10
bucket list bonding
26 December 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. A diagnosis of lung cancer immediately changes one's priorities in life. For 60 year old Mike Marz it meant checking an unusual item off of his bucket list ... storm chasing. For the vast majority of us, storm chasing has been limited to watching director Jan de Bont's 1996 film TWISTER starring Bill Paxton. But this is the Mike Marz's real life story, and no cows go flying by.

Mr. Marz contacts his much younger nephew, Mark Zabawa, and the two men head to the Midwest in hopes of catching the tail end of the year's tornado season. Documentarian Liam Saint-Pierre joins them in the car with his camera rolling. We witness the lulls in action, followed by the adrenaline rush of speeding towards a storm and possible sighting.

Saint-Pierre's photography is stunning and captures the magnificence and power of nature, the danger of the situation, and the excitement of Mike and Mark. However, as fascinating as the storm chasing is, this is really the story of a man fulfilling one last wish, and two ends of the life cycle bonding over an experience with Mother Nature.
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Exit 12 (2019)
7/10
transformation
26 December 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. After two tours in Fallujah, Iraq, U.S. Marine Roman Baca returned home a changed man. He struggled with anger, anxiety and depression. Transitioning from soldier to citizen did not go smoothly for him. PTSD was a part of his life.

At the encouragement of his wife Lisa, Roman founded a dance company called Exit 12. He had previously trained as a classical ballet dancer, and was now using his talent and love for dance to choreograph the effects of war ... telling stories that had previously haunted him. His workshops for active military and retired veterans are designed to facilitate and mediate the conflicting messages of soldiers and civilians.

Director Mohammad Gorjestani's 23 minute film won the Grand Jury prize at SXSW, and it provides a look at PTSD that we hadn't previously considered. Mr. Baca calls it "reprogramming" the soldiers, and it also allows for a communication outlet so that families can better understand what caused these personality shifts. Exit 12 Dance Company and the workshops allow veterans to have a voice, as well as an outlet. The transformation from Marine to dancer is good for all.
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Clemency (2019)
7/10
burning up inside
26 December 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. You surely complain about your job. Most everyone does. But what if your career path had led you to oversee a dozen court-mandated executions, and the next one was already scheduled? In her first feature film, writer-director Chinonye Chukwu takes us inside the world of Warden Bernadine Williams, who manages a maximum-security prison, including inmates on death row. It's the rare film in this sub-genre that doesn't preach anti-death penalty politics, and instead focuses on the emotional toll it takes on those who must carry out the sentence.

Warden Williams (Alfre Woodard) is a seasoned prison professional who keeps her emotions in check, while sticking to policies and procedures. She is a restrained, often stoic person - both at work and at home. Early in the film, a lethal injection goes awry, and the warden finds this inexcusable. She wants answers and she prepares to make sure the next one scheduled ... for inmate Anthony Woods ... goes smoothly. Aldis Hodge plays Mr. Woods, a death row inmate for 15 years. His execution date is fast approaching despite his claims of innocence and the evidence showing he was not the one who killed the police officer. Woods' attorney (Richard Schiff) has informed him that his last strand of hope is a decree of clemency by the governor.

Bernadine's job involves dealing with family members, protestors, lawyers, media, guards, medical staff, procedures, final statements ... and even the search for veins. The stress is obviously taking a toll, and even her home life is a wreck. Husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) is frustrated at her aloofness. He's a high school teacher and reads a passage of "Invisible Man" to his class - words that hit home for him. Bernadine must also deal with the prison priest (Michael O'Neill) and the two share a powerful moment that relays the strain on both. Bernadine speaks matter-of-factly to Mr. Woods as she outlines the procedure of his execution. In another powerful moment, Mr. Woods attempts to exercise his last bit of control over his life and death. It's brutal to watch.

Even though the death sentence is for convict Anthony Woods, most every other person involved expresses some desire to retire or walk away. This speaks clearly to the burden associated with taking the life of another human being. In a meeting with his former partner Evette (Danielle Brooks), Woods is given hope of a legacy outside of crime, while Evette expresses what she needs to him. This life is no fairy tale, and hard edges and difficult moments are around every corner.

Ms. Woodard has long been an underrated actress. Her only Oscar nomination came in 1983, and she has been outstanding in most roles since TV's "St Elsewhere" in the 1980's. She manages to convey humanity and realism in most every character she plays. Mr. Hodge starred in the title role of BRIAN BANKS earlier this year, and in both roles, he possesses a strength of character that allows the audience in. In Ms. Chukwu's film, both are isolated in some way and struggling with how to deal.

Although the film spends very little time on the question of guilt or innocence, or whether the death penalty is a law of morality that fits within society, the approach of examining the psychological impact of those involved proves worthy of discussion. We do wish the script had not delivered such stand-off characters ... ones so difficult to connect with. But perhaps that's the inevitability of the environment - one that cuts much deeper than following the ritual of preparing for the next execution.
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Little Women (2019)
8/10
an instant classic
24 December 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. More than 150 years have passed since Louisa May Alcott's novel was published (volume 1 was published in 1868, volume 2 in 1869). By my count, there have been seven previous movie adaptations, dating back to the silent film era and through the more familiar George Cukor-Katharine Hepburn (1933), Mervyn Leroy-June Allyson (1949), and Gillian Armstrong-Wynona Ryder (1994) versions. One might think that sufficient, yet, after viewing this latest, you'll likely join me in believing that director Greta Gerwig and Louisa May Alcott (and by natural extension Jo March) are kindred spirits ... timeless storytellers of the moment.

Oscar nominated (writing and directing) for her standout LADY BIRD (2017), Ms. Gerwig remains true to the beloved source material while adding her own contemporary touch. She begins with the adult March sisters and then flashing back 7 years to the stage of living together and battling through the difficult and awkward transitional phase. The four sisters Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) are exceptionally well cast, and we immediately recognize the familiar personality traits of each. Jo is the serious, determined writer who has an understanding of financial necessities. Meg is the warm facilitator beloved by all. Amy has ambitions (or is it dreams?) of being a great artist and living an exceptional life. Beth, the youngest, radiates a sweet nature and love for the piano.

Much of the story is told through the eyes of Jo. Her independent spirit and frustration with how the world is, boils over at times. She states her disappointment at being born a girl, and is described as having "a nature too noble to curb." While viewing, one must keep in mind that this was the Civil War era (the girls' father is a military Chaplain), and women had achieved very few rights in society. The contrast is never more evident than when comparing Marmee (Laura Dern), presented here as a near flesh-and-blood saint, with Aunt March (Meryl Streep), one quite at ease in thumbing her nose at societal norms for one reason ... she is rich.

Fans of the novel will be pleased that Timothee Chalamet plays "Laurie Laurence", who struggles every bit as much as the sisters in finding his way towards adulthood. His scenes with Jo are exceptional. Chris Cooper, not seen nearly enough in movies these days, perfectly captures the broken spirit of Mr. Laurence, a man never quite able to escape his own personal loss. Other key cast members include James Norton as tutor/teacher John Brooke, Louis Garrel as Friedrich (here a Frenchman), and Tracy Letts dropping some deadpan comedy as Jo's publisher Mr Dashwood.

Ms. Gerwig (perhaps with a future as one of the greatest filmmakers) displays storytelling and cinematic craftsmanship at the highest level. She bounces between timelines (over at least 7 years) and different sisters' stories, showing how each is so different ... yet all interconnected. These spirited sisters, raised in the same modest home, have their own independent thoughts and ideas of how they want to live their lives. This delivers multiple comings-of-age and examines 'a woman's place', whatever that means. In fact, the message is that a woman's place is whatever she decides, and while her options are many (despite obstacles), her decisions are personal. None of the four sisters are played by American actors, and all four perform admirably. Pay particular attention to Florence Pugh (MIDSOMMAR) and her work as Amy. Also impressive is the Production Design by Jess Gonchor and the score by 2-time Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat. This one is all about the storytelling and characters, so take in the bunch known as the March sisters. As a side note, Greta Gerwig's next movie is a live-action BARBIE movie, with Margot Robbie in the lead.
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Uncut Gems (2019)
8/10
faster faster
24 December 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. It's debatable whether this movie should be labeled an indie crime thriller or a 'Scared Straight' session for gambling addicts. Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie are filmmaking brothers who seem to specialize in adding a frenetic pace to the lives of characters who consistently make bad decisions. Their excellent 2017 film GOOD TIME (starring Robert Pattinson) set the tone for their latest, featuring an Adam Sandler performance unlike anything we've previously seen from him.

After a brief prologue at an Ethiopian mine, we are dropped right into Howard's world. Well, more specifically, we find ourselves on the camera end of Howard Ratner's colonoscopy, while also seeing the vibrant glow of the rare opal extracted from that opening mine. Remarkably, the colonoscopy may be Howard's (and our) most relaxing moment of the movie. The character of Howard is based on a guy the Safdie brothers' dad worked for in the Diamond District when they were growing up. He's played here by Mr. Sandler, who delivers a performance so memorable that we now can't imagine anyone else in the role.

Here is what we learn about Howard: he's arrogant and foolish and energetic and hopeful. He lives life on the edge ... or perhaps he's already tipped. He's a Jewish jeweler based in inner-city Manhattan, and as the film begins, he owes a lot of money to someone who has hired goons to collect. Howard has an irascible wife Dinah (Idina Menzell, Elsa's voice in FROZEN) who is fed up with his antics ... one of which is his employee/mistress Julia (newcomer Julia Fox). Howard has an insatiable gambling addiction and he's always on the brink of a life-changing big score or a colossal failure that could cost him everything. He's a hustler who has to move faster each day to prevent the collapse of his house of cards: sports bets, pawns, loans, lies, and empty promises.

So if you think you now have a feel for this, I can assure you that you are mistaken. The frenetic pace is relentless to watch. We kind of like Howard, but yet, we want nothing to do with him. His latest scheme involves the expectation that the rare opal will solve his many financial woes. In the meantime, his business associate Demany (LaKeith Stanfield) brings him a high profile client ... NBA player Kevin Garnett. The film looks and feels like a gritty 1970's flick, but it's based during the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, and Garnett plays himself (and quite well). Garnett borrows the opal for good luck and that's when all 'heck' breaks loose. Also in play here is Howard's rotten brother-in-law (Eric Begosian), to whom he also owes money. Adding even more NYC flavor are Judd Hirsch, John Amos, and sports radio host Mike Francesca, as Howard's bookie.

Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never) provides an electronic score that helps ensure we are never comfortable watching what is unfolding, and cinematographer Darius Khondji (EVITA) keeps his camera in constant motion - just like the characters. Production Designer Sam Lisenco creates Howard's world through the jewelry shop, the house, the apartment, and especially that back office. Set Decorator Kendall Anderson wins a place in my heart for the Pete Maravich poster.

The Safdie brothers co-wrote the script with their editor Ronald Bronstein (who also worked on GOOD TIME), and afterwards you'll find yourself going back through all the poor choices made by most every character. The brilliantly sustained level of uneasiness includes a segment featuring The Weeknd, and one revolving around a school play for Howard's daughter. The Safdie style is present throughout, and most conversations are loud and heated and threatening. If you are the type that needs at least one likable character, or a serene environment, or respectful adult conversation, you are out of luck here. Howard is an exhausting character in an exhausting story within an exhausting movie ... just as it was intended.
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1917 (2019)
8/10
hold on tight
23 December 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. It's now been over 100 years since World War I ended. The Great War garners barely a mention in high school history books these days, and Hollywood has devoted much more time and energy to WWII. Filmmaker Peter Jackson did his part with last year's stunning documentary THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD, a video and photographic look at the actual people involved in the First World War. And now, Oscar winning director Sam Mendes (AMERICAN BEAUTY) delivers another glimpse ... and another technical marvel.

Mr. Mendes, working with Oscar winning Cinematographer Roger Deakins (BLADE RUNNER 2049) and Oscar winning Film Editor Lee Smith (DUNKIRK), has shot and edited the film to give the look of one continuous take in real time. Although used previously in such films as Hitchcock's ROPE and Inarritu's BIRDMAN, the single take approach is certainly no gimmick here. We open on two young British soldiers lounging in a prairie as they are summoned to report to the commander. Their mission is described as critical, as a British battalion is preparing to walk into a deadly trap set by the Germans. More than 1600 lives are at stake and the phone lines are down. It's up to Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield to work their way across No Man's Land to the front line and hand-deliver an order stopping the attack. Oh, and one more detail: Blake's older brother is in the battalion he is tasked with warning.

The real time approach serves the purpose of allowing viewers to take on the urgency of Blake and Schofield. We experience the tension and horrors of war. Barbed wire, booby traps, slushy trenches, snipers, rats, dead bodies, dogfights (the aerial type) and towns under siege all play a part here as the men rush towards their goal of saving fellow soldiers lives, including a beloved family member. Dean-Charles Chapman ("Game of Thrones") plays Blake, and George MacKay (CAPTAIN FANTASTIC) plays Schofield. We spot the personality differences between them. Blake is super focused and determined to save his brother, while Schofield doesn't welcome the assignment, but is a dutiful soldier and loyal friend.

It's really the Schofield character with whom the viewer mostly relates. He's no super soldier or Jason Bourne-type, but rather a young man trying to stay alive and fulfill his orders. With the relentless pacing of the film, we feel the fear and admire the courage. There is an especially touching scene in a bombed-out town where paths are crossed with a French woman (Claire Duburcq) caring for an orphaned infant. It's a reminder that humanity still exists, even within the bounds of war.

There is no clock ticking in the corner of the screen, but we know time is of the essence, and quite limited. The camera seems to be always moving forward, rarely allowing for us or the characters to exhale. As you might expect, running is done frequently - sometimes towards something, sometimes from it. Roger Deakins is in prime form here with his camera, and there are too many remarkable moments to mention them all; however, the river rapids and waterfall, and the town under siege at night, are two of the most incredible sequences I've seen on screen.

Along the journey, some familiar faces pop up as military men: Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden, Mark Strong, and Colin Firth. Although each appears only briefly, it's a testament to their acting prowess that each is memorable. The chaos and relentless terror of war is on display, more often than not. But this isn't a film designed to create deep thoughts or serious debates on the merits of war. Instead, it's meant to focus on one of the countless personal stories that occur during war. War is fought by people, not faceless countries, and each person has their own story.

Non-linear story telling has been a movie-thing since even before MEMENTO, but director Mendes (and co-writer Kristy Wilson-Cairns, "Penny Dreadful") show us the true presentation of linear ... in the moment and by the moment. GALLIPOLI and PATHS OF GLORY are about the closest comparisons I can come up with, and the weight of the film is felt physically and emotionally as we are drawn in. The exceptional score from Thomas Newman (14 time Oscar nominee) serves to accentuate the chaos and relentless terror. It's a work of art and a unique viewing experience.
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8/10
a personal look at the impact
21 December 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Living in a free society means we get to make many of our own life decisions ... big ones and small. Of course, those decisions are best if managed within generally accepted societal norms. Most of us can't even imagine living under the rule of a government that controls something as personal as the number of kids we can have in our family. Well, in 1979 China imposed a "one child" policy. It stood for more than three decades, until 2015. Filmmakers Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang give us an insider's glimpse of the effects of this policy by talking to the folks who lived through it.

Ms. Wang was born in China and moved to the U.S. Having recently had a baby, she decided to return to her birth country and explore the effects of the policy under which she was born. The social experiment and restrictive policy was instituted out of desperation for a country whose population was booming, yet the economy and food supply were a mess. She shows us the propaganda that was seemingly everywhere - from artwork on neighborhood walls to television shows. The approach was to make people think this was their patriotic duty, and that one child was the idyllic life.

What has never been discussed or studied was the dark side of what the policy meant. It was a system that encouraged boys and downgraded girls. To Ms. Wang's credit, she interviews those on both sides of the policy - those who believe it was necessary and prevented over-population, and those who tell the horror stories of families torn apart, babies abandoned, and the secretive human trafficking that occurred. It's quite devastating to hear these people discuss the personal impact.

The film is autobiographical in nature, in that Ms. Wang is our narrator, often appears on camera, and even interviews her own family members - both to personalize the story and to educate herself. Hearing the story of her grandfather stepping in to prevent sterilization of Nanfu's mother is incredible. We learn she later had a son who became the favored child within the family. And yes, we get details ... very specific details ... on the forced sterilizations and abortions that occurred. One doctor takes credit for 'tens of thousands' of abortions and sterilizations, which Ms. Wang effectively contrasts with America's ever-increasingly restrictive abortion policies. These are the two extremes in preventing women's control of their own bodies.

No top government officials are interviewed, but the implications are quite clear. We even learn of the Utah organization Research-China that researches Asian children adopted during this era, often with the adoptive parents unaware of what was happening in China. We even learn of a set of twins who were separated at birth - one raised in the U.S., the other in China. They have never met. Ms. Wang is quite effective as a documentarian-journalist. Though the film lacks any attempt at style points, the details are astounding. She even shows how the Chinese government transitioned from 'one child' to marketing the benefits of a "two child" household, and how the propaganda machine kicked in. This film is all about impact, and it will deliver a gut-punch.
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Cats (2019)
5/10
far from purr-fect
20 December 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Director Tom Hooper must really enjoy this process. In 2012 he brought mega-hit stage musical LES MISERABLES to the screen. It was nominated for 8 Oscars and won 3, including one for Anne Hathaway. This time, Mr. Hooper again turns his talents towards a colossally successful stage musical, and costumes, make-up, and visual effects are even more crucial. Whereas Les Mis was adapted from Victor Hugo's novel, CATS was adapted by songwriter Andrew Lloyd Webber from a 1939 poetry collection of T.S. Elilot. Of course, Mr. Webber is also the genius behind other brilliant musicals, including THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (from the novel by Gaston Leroux).

Tom Hooper and Lee Hall have adapted the screenplay from the stage presentation, and the sung-through musical approach means there is minimal dialogue. Songs are used to tell the story and introduce the key characters. Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (a 3-time Tony winner, "Hamilton") is the real star. Multiple dance styles are featured, including: classical ballet, contemporary, hip-hop, and traditional tap. The dancing is tremendous, and of course, a big part of that is Francesca Hayward, who plays new kitten on the block, Victoria. Ms. Hayward is a Principal Ballerina at The Royal Ballet. Numerous other skilled dancers are in the cast as well.

The story (such that it is) revolves around a tribe of Jellicle cats who have an annual ritual of selecting one to ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back with a new Jellicle life. Sweet Victoria is unceremoniously dumped in the alley by her owner, and is quickly surrounded by this tribe of cats that basically aren't very nice. It's in this opening sequence where we realize these humans as cats actually look a bit creepy and take a while to get accustomed to. Given the structure, the story plods along through each successive song, with certain characters getting their moment to shine. These include Rebel Wilson as humorous and chunky Gumbie cat Jennyanydots, Rum Tum Tiger cat played by talented musician/singer/dancer Jason Derulo, Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson as outcast Grizabella, James Corden as the usually-hungry Bustopher Jones, and Oscar winner Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy. Always hovering, is the mystical Macavity played by glowing-green-eyed Idris Elba, and making a later appearance is Taylor Swift as Bombalurina, singing the Macavity tribute song.

The two most memorable numbers come courtesy of Ian McKellan as Gus the Theatre Cat, and Ms. Hudson who belts out the most famous song of the production, "Memory", in a vocal and emotional highlight of the film. Visually, it's Mr. Mistofelees (Laurie Davidson) magic number that breaks us out of the muted palette. The other musical numbers mostly just fall flat and aren't very entertaining or enjoyable.

It's pure coincidence that the screening for this film was the same day as the new Star Wars movie. The franchise for the latter began in 1977, while "Cats" first hit the stage in 1981. That's quite a legacy for both. As for this film version from director Hooper, I do wonder if enough viewers will respond to a musical where the story and songs are overshadowed by the dancing, and the sets and costumes offer no 'wow' factor. Many will find these characters hard to connect with ... at least outside of that incredible Jennifer Hudson vocal. It seems these kitties should have remained on stage.
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Bombshell (2019)
6/10
despicable him
19 December 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Movies based on true stories are increasingly popular these days. OK, not as popular as comic book films, but the appeal of tapping into 'truth-is-stranger-than-fiction" is a natural, as viewers bring a sense of familiarity to the characters and/or events. On the flipside, this familiarity can create challenges for the filmmakers and actors as they must meet viewer expectations or risk being waved off as a flop. When tackling the story of Fox News CEO Roger Ailes and the sexual harassment scandal of 2016, the folks associated with this project faced the added burden of an internationally reported story with faces and personalities recognized around the globe.

For the most part, director Jay Roach (TRUMBO, MEET THE PARENTS, AUSTIN POWERS), screenwriter Charles Randolph (Oscar winner THE BIG SHORT), and a very talented cast succeed in taking us behind the scenes of this unsettling story, so that we might better understand how 20 years of despicable behavior continued unabated. The film picks up in 2015 as the Presidential campaigns are underway. Megyn Kelly (a spot-on performance from Oscar winner Charlize Theron) breaks the 4th wall and takes us on a tour of the Fox offices - even pointing out Roger Ailes' private and secure sanctuary. We then see the memorable moment where Ms. Kelly publicly questioned candidate Donald Trump about his history with women. It was a moment that shook the network, and elevated Megyn Kelly to worldwide notoriety.

Early emphasis is on Gretchen Carlson (played by Oscar winner Nicole Kidman), and her declining role at the network as she is removed from the highly rated "Fox and Friends", and placed on her own show in an unappealing time slot. Although her professional skills are presented in a way that has her appearing a bit amateurish, Ms. Carlson makes the case that she was unceremoniously removed due to her not going along with Ailes' wishes behind closed doors. It's Gretchen Carlson's lawsuit against Ailes that kicks off the downfall of the network's leader. She was the one courageous enough to be first.

Margot Robbie plays Kayla Pospisill, an ambitious producer who initially works for Carlson, and then moves on to "The O'Reilly Factor". Kayla is a composite character written to represent many of the women who worked at the network. She is smart and working towards a shot at becoming an on-air personality. It's that ambition that results in her sitting in Ailes' office when he says "Stand up and give me a twirl." His request (evidently not an uncommon one) is followed by his reasoning - "Television is a visual medium." It's Kayla's interaction that allows us a glimpse at the systemic sexual harassment that became commonplace in the office. The toxic environment was not isolated to Ailes ... as shown here, and proven later.

John Lithgow perfectly captures the elderly Ailes, who suffers from multiple physical ailments - none of which affect his ego or demented nature. He never sees the evil of his ways, as he's been taking advantage of his power position for so long, the right comebacks and lead-ons have become second nature to him. What makes this even more frightening is that Ailes apparently used this harassment and manipulation as the first step in a form of mind control ... to ensure the content of his network fit his ultra-conservative and closed-minded ideals. The message was clear: remain loyal to him or lose your career.

The ensemble cast is excellent, even if the leads dominate the story. Oscar winner Allison Janney portrays Ailes' attorney Susan Esrcih, Connie Brittain plays his supportive wife Beth Ailes, Malcom McDowell is Rupert Murdoch, and Kate McKinnon plays Kayla's co-worker (and more) Jess Carr, who is forced to keep her private life in her desk drawer. Other supporting roles are filled by Liv Hewson, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Rob Delaney, Mark Duplass, Stephen Root, Robin Weigert, Anne Ramsay, and Richard Kind. Some of the real life names and faces include: Bill O'Reilly, Rudy Giuliani, Chris Wallace, Greta Van Susteren, Neil Cavuto, Geraldo Rivera, and Jeanine Pirro.

"This place is crazy." I don't remember which character said it, but it could have been any of them. The politics of the network (and Ailes himself) are always hovering over every scene. What caused Fox News to become such a toxic work environment? Having a despicable leader doesn't seem like enough. Why were so many men treating it as a frat house, and so few women willing to speak up? The answer seems to be that these were talented and ambitious women who were determined not to lose what they had worked for. When one character states that women owe it to each other to speak up, it really brings into focus how much courage is required to do just that.

Showtime's multiple-episode "The Loudest Voice" with Russell Crowe as Roger Ailes and Naomi Watts as Gretchen Carlson was able to go into greater depth with the longer run time, but director Roach tells this from the women's viewpoint. Ms. Theron truly disappears into the role of Megyn Kelly, while Lithgow, Kidman and Robbie deliver in a way that we forget we are watching actors. Some of the best segments feature these women reacting in the moment ... moments we hope are becoming extinct. By the way, I wonder how much a "Team Roger" t-shirt is going for these days - or if they can even give them away?
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