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Monos
(2019)

Brilliant visuals highlight "Lord of the Flies" update despite questions of the necessity of making such films in the first place
Monos (which translates as "monkeys" in Spanish) is the third feature by director and co-writer Alejandro Landes Echavarria. A Brazilian native, Echavarria filmed Manos in Colombia. It's sort of a modern day update of "Lord of the Flies," with an ensemble cast of teenagers playing a group of commandos supervised by a shadowy group dubbed "The Organization," in an unspecified Latin American country (presumably in the present time).

The group is headed by "Wolf," who is given permission by the company commander "The Messenger" (who only makes periodic visits to the group in the mountains and jungle) to have a sexual relationship with "Lady." The others have neat names including Bigfoot, Rambo, Swede, Smurf, Boom Boom and Dog. The group also holds a hostage, "Doctora," an American engineer played by Julianne Nicholson.

Much of the first part of the second act involves a cow, which the Messenger warns is a "loan" to the group from a benevolent supporter, which must be protected at all costs. During a celebration resembling a bacchanal festival, Dog accidentally kills the cow while firing his automatic weapon. Wolf, as squad leader, kills himself as he realizes he'll be held responsible for the death of the cow. The group radios back to headquarters a false story that Wolf was responsible for killing the cow while drunk.

Much of the rest of Monos cannot be described on paper. It's really a brilliant piece of filmmaking in which the virtually unsupervised group descends into barbarism and emerges as a fractious entity as a result of conflicting needs. The significant plot points involve Doctora's and the female Rambo's escape as well as the murder of the commander, the Messenger, by the newly appointed squad leader, Bigfoot.

As a pure visual, kinetic exercise, Monos manages to convince us that Echavarria is a director to reckon with in years to come. Nonetheless, one wonders what is the entire point of his story? There have already been many sociological studies involving teenagers who have the potential for falling for authoritarian organizations and descending into barbarism (the Hitler Youth being a prime example).

Special mention should be made of Mica Levi's inspired heart-pounding score. Monos is a film that does not rely on dialogue-it is a visual tour de force. As such, you will probably remain glued to your seat as you watch it, despite wondering if the concept was worth developing in the first place.

The Farewell
(2019)

Heartfelt Chinese Grandma death watch has nowhere to go
The Farewell is second feature director Lulu Wang's Sundance project which has received almost universal acclaim by the critics. Wang, a Chinese-American, came to the US as a child, and developed her stories based upon her own experiences.

The story involves Billi (based on Wang herself), whose paternal grandmother, Nai Nai, has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer back in mainland China where she has always lived. The family, following cultural traditions, decides not to tell her, and creates an elaborate ruse (a wedding for Billi's cousin who resides in Japan) as an opportunity for all the relatives to get together and say their final farewells.

Billi is played by the comedian and rapper Awkwafina, most recently seen in Crazy Rich Asians. When Billi learns of her grandmother's diagnosis, she decides to fly to China from NY on her own after her parents have already arrived there. Awkwafina unfortunately has a thankless role, with Billi portrayed as constantly dour (as well as angry and sad) throughout the narrative.

Despite all-around good performances from the rest of the cast, beautiful cinematography and a welcome peek into Chinese middle class culture, Wang's premise is a one-note idea. Some of the machinations involve the comedy of the family members keeping the diagnosis from the grandmother. After a while, this one note idea of hiding the truth becomes stale.

We do learn from Billi's uncle the reason why the family prefers not to inform the grandmother of her illness (they feel it's more honorable if others shoulder the burden of knowing and not ruining the rest of the time the grandmother has left). There are also some very nice heartfelt expressions of emotion from both Billi and her uncle at the wedding reception, at film's end. All of this is still not enough to save The Farewell which ends up as an exercise in almost continuous sentimentality.

Without giving away the twist at the very end of the film, suffice it to say it's not always a good idea to rely completely on the medical profession's diagnoses.

En man som heter Ove
(2015)

Despite sentimental diversions, this tale of a wily curmudgeon has occasional moments of genuine pathos
Released in 2016, A Man Called Ove was the Swedish entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards in 2017. Directed by Hannes Holm, it's based on Fredrik Backman's 2012 book of the same name. Rolf Lassgård plays Ove, a curmudgeon in his 60s, the former president of a neighborhood association of townhouses in a Swedish suburb.

The film is a drama with occasional comic moments. Despite patrolling the neighborhood with gusto, constantly looking for transgressors who break the rules (including driving one's car too fast through the development), Ove is actually quite depressed (chiefly linked to the death of his wife six months earlier and more recent loss of his long time job as an engineer).

Each time Ove attempts to commit suicide (whether it's by hanging or asphyxiating himself by turning on the exhaust in his car for example), he's invariably interrupted by others who seek his help. His principal savior is Parvaneh,, an Iranian immigrant who's just moved in next door with her Swedish husband and two young children. She eventually gets Ove to open up after requesting favors of him including asking him to teach her how to drive and also babysit her kids.

Ove the film manages to have a big heart but eventually devolves into sentimentality. It's fairly predictable that the gruff Ove eventually will be able to let out his emotions, aided by Parvaneh, who makes him see that trying to kill himself is a bad idea, especially because he's someone who has much to offer.

The story also chronicles Ove's earlier life in a series of flashbacks-how he lost his mother as a young child and was close to his father who taught him how to repair car engines (one of Ove's life-long interests). Tragedy strikes a second time (the first being the death of his mother), when his father is hit by a passing train while on the job.

The third devastating tragedy is that his schoolteacher wife ends up paralyzed after their tour bus overturns on a vacation trip to Spain. Ida Engvoll is wonderful as Ove's young wife Sonja but has little to do in the part, which appears chiefly designed to evoke additional tears from an audience already inundated with a veritable heaping tablespoon of tragedy.

Ove's good character is made clear when he grudgingly helps others, which (in addition to his next door neighbor) also includes a friend of Sonja's former student who needs a place to stay after he reveals he's gay and is promptly kicked out of the house by an intolerant father.

Ove also saves a man who faints and falls on the train tracks. This leads to the resolution of the second act crisis, where Rune, Ove's rival, who took over as neighborhood association president, but is now semi-comatose after a stroke, is about to be put in a nursing home (against his wife's wishes), by "whiteshirts" (Ove's terms for heartless bureaucrats). A reporter who unsuccessfully attempts to interview Ove after he saved the man at the train station, ends up exposing the whiteshirts for some kind of real estate scam, and they back off sending Rune away.

The sentimental treatment of the handicapped Rune is coupled with additional comic asides which also don't work well at all (Ove's obsession with Saab cars over Volvos is one such example). Nonetheless, director Holm (who also wrote the screenplay), ends the narrative on the right unsentimental note: Ove initially appears to reach the end after collapsing and being diagnosed with an enlarged heart but manages to pull through, only to be found dead in his bed a few months later by his neighbors.

A Man called Ove features a top-notch performance by noted actor Rolf Lassgård as the wily curmudgeon. Despite its sentimental moments, there's enough pathos here to sway even a critical film goer such as myself toward a modicum of approbation.

Luce
(2019)

Straight-A student takes down his teacher in engrossing tale of moral ambiguity and the racial divide
Finally a film examining the racial divide in this country chooses not to fall for easy answers. Director Julius Onah collaborated with JC Lee on the screenplay based on Lee's play. The title character, brilliantly played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., is a high school student initially adopted as a troubled child soldier from Eritrea by white parents, Amy and Peter, played with great intensity by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth.

Luce, an A-student and track star, is seen at the beginning of the film, rehearsing a speech he's about to make before the student body. He reminds one of a young Obama and is even told that by fellow students (pejoratively as it turns out). Luce comes into conflict with his history teacher, Harriet Wilson, played by Octavia Spencer, in the surprisingly welcome role as the heavy (in contrast to many earlier films where she's played overly sympathetic characters).

Harriet, a conservative African-American woman has already gotten DeShaun, the star football player, kicked off the team with no chance of receiving a college scholarship, after she rummages through his locker and finds marijuana there. Harriet, a stickler for the rules, has a reputation as a hard ass and Luce apparently resents her lack of flexibility.

When Luce writes a paper assigned by Harriet in the voice of Frantz Fanon, a French-African nationalist who advocated violence to oppose colonial stewardship, alarm bells go off in Ms. Wilson's head. Her best student may be embracing the radical posture of the more militant African-American students at the school and she doesn't want to see Luce ruin his career. To add insult to injury, she also finds a cache of illegal fireworks in his locker.

Wilson's decision to go through Luce's locker is actually debated in class between the two in a hypothetical discussion involving legal decisions. While it appears Wilson is able to legally justify going through the locker, it's clear Luce will have none of her argument. The rummaging through the locker is probably the weakest plot link in the film. While justification is somehow provided during this classroom debate between the principals, in reality a teacher would never have been allowed to get away with going through a student's locker like that without permission-especially in a school with a liberal, progressive principal like Mr. Towson (played by Norbert Leo Butz).

Wilson brings all this to Luce's mom Amy, who fears the underlying psychopathology of his younger years may be re-emerging. Is he sociopath or merely the victim of a teacher who has a vendetta against him? And could Ms. Wilson's "vendetta" actually be based on holding Luce to a higher standard (in Luce's eyes, the black student is expected to be "perfect"). Wilson, in contrast, acknowledges how racism can easily bring African-Americans down and that's why even a small slip-up can ruin any chances to succeed in a society run by whites.

Luce (the film) morphs into a psychological thriller as we're eager to know whether Luce is honest or not. Soon it becomes apparent, that Luce, as a school leader, cannot allow the slight to DeShaun to go unanswered. The earlier reference to Frantz Fanon becomes completely a propos-Fanon, known for his axiom of "the oppressed becoming the oppressor," now completely applies to the manipulative Luce. Through a series of brilliant schemes (including conscripting his girlfriend to lie to Ms. Wilson that she was gang raped by some students at a drunken party), he manages to get the 15 year teaching veteran fired.

Wilson, however, remains somewhat sympathetic. In a subplot, she cares for a drug-addicted woman with mental health issues whom she has taken in as a ward. The woman ends up appearing at the high school, has a meltdown (ripping off all her clothes to boot) and ends up tasered by cops who arrive there after 911 is called.

The film's scenarists do what good screenwriters should do-introduce moral ambiguity into a story where one strains to figure out who is the correct protagonist and antagonist. What's more I think the protagonist is not as sympathetic as one would like and the antagonist has troubling sympathetic qualities.

May I venture to suggest that Ms. Wilson is the protagonist but deeply flawed? She holds high school students to the standard of adults which has very unfortunate consequences, especially for that one student expecting a college scholarship. On the other hand, Luce is clearly the antagonist, in that he is willing to lie and manipulate others in order to take down a 15 year veteran teacher, who admirably has been caring for a drug-addicted woman off the streets. But still, can't Luce's behavior be excused due to his extremely difficult childhood? What's more, it appears at film's end that he is remorseful regarding his behavior and is on the road to positive change.

The parents here are complicated characters too. Naomi Watts displays a gamut of emotions as she's on a veritable roller-coaster, not knowing whether she should be supportive or critical of her son. But Tim Roth who plays the father, will have none of Luce's manipulation. He never really wanted to raise a troubled child in the first place, and now feels that his negative expectations have been confirmed.

In this era where some filmmakers choose to depict African-Americans as perennial victims, Luce is a refreshing change. Indeed, the axiom of "the oppressed becoming the oppressor," suggests that those who have been victims of racism, would sometimes prefer to embrace the "sweet taste" of revenge as opposed to taking the "high road" (or as Spike Lee put it: "Do the right thing"). But on the other hand, in this film (as in life in general), things are not always "black and white" nor is right always completely right and wrong always completely wrong.

Cold Case Hammarskjöld
(2019)

Despite going off on tangents. Danish documentarian offers up answers in the 1961 death of UN Secretary General
At the beginning of Cold Case Hammarskjöld, Danish documentarian Mads Brugger concedes that his search for answers regarding the death of UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld has ended up as a fascinating murder mystery or an idiotic conspiracy theory. Certainly Brugger has managed to suggest both in a film that is rarely boring but occasionally frustrating.

Brugger employs an unorthodox framing device to tell his story. In two separate cities in the Congo and South Africa, he dictates his story to different secretaries, who type on a manual typewriter. Whether his narration works or not is subject to debate.

Soon it becomes clear that Brugger wasn't the first to start a full-scale investigation into the death of Hammarskjöld, whose plane was shot down in September 1961 in Ndola, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) while he was on a peacekeeping mission, mediating between the parties in the Congolese civil war. Goran Bjorkdahl, a Swedish aid worker, has been investigating the facts of the case a bit longer than Brugger (2011 to be exact).

Bjorkdahl's father gave him a seemingly bullet-riddled piece of metal which purportedly was a piece from Hammarskjold's downed plane. Later an FBI lab report concludes that this was a false lead-that it wasn't from the plane at all. Meanwhile Brugger and Bjorkdahl get permission from the Ndola airport where parts of the plane were supposedly buried and employ a metal detector, locating the spot where they believe the remains of the plane lie.

Brugger and Bjorkdahl appear almost as comical figures as they attempt to dig up part of the plane by themselves with only two pick axes in hand-only to be denied eventually by the Zambian government, who apparently get wind of their research project later on.

At this point one wants to know a little bit more about Hammarskjold. We find out that the renegade province Katanga, led by Moise Tshombe, declared its independence from the Congo and Hammarskjold sent in UN troops to stop the secession. The UN intervention ended up badly for them and we're informed Hammarskjold was on his way to negotiate further with Tshombe. My question is why Hammarskjold thought he would have been welcomed by Tshombe at all; after all, it was the Secretary General who ordered the UN troop interference, in the first place.

In Brugger's view, Hammarkskjold was an idealist who opposed the colonialists in Africa, particularly the Union Minière, an Anglo-Belgian mining company, which had been in the Congo for years. Brugger (along with many others) believe that the colonialists had Hammarskjöld murdered as he championed African interests.

Perhaps the most fascinating and compelling piece of evidence which points to murder are the various native witnesses who heard gunfire and were aware of the presence of another plane (a small jet fighter) as Hammarskjöld's plane approached the Ndola airport. Brugger finds a retired American, a former NSA operative, who confirmed that they believe a Belgian pilot (a former RAF flyer in World War II) was responsible for firing at Hammarskjöld's plane and causing it to crash.

Equally fascinating is that there is a photograph of Hammarskjöld's body with the Ace of Spades card tucked into his collar, a supposed calling card from US and British intelligence.

The story gets more bizarre as Brugger shifts the scene to South Africa. Back in the early 90s, their Truth and Reconciliation Committee uncovered some photocopied documents detailing the existence of a shadowy white supremacist organization called the South African Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR). Essentially they were a group of mercenaries led by an equally shadowy figure known as the Commodore (later identified as Keith Maxwell, who liked to dress in all white, as a 19th century naval officer).

Brugger goes off on a tangent in the second half of "Cold Case" as he interviews a former soldier in SAIMR who claims that a young woman, Dagmar Fell, a young biochemist, was murdered by SAIMR after she threatened to expose the group for injecting the AIDS virus into unsuspecting Black Africans (subtitles caution that there was no evidence that isolating the virus and injecting it into people was ever accomplished).

It takes quite a while before Brugger gets back to his main topic-the murder of Hammarskjöld-but he finally reveals that in Maxwell's (fictional) autobiography, there is an admission that SAIMR, acting on the behest of unknown parties, placed a bomb in Hammarskjöld's plane and it went off upon approach to the Ndola airport. So it appears that the plane may have been downed by both an air attack from another plane and a bomb.

Cold Case Hammarskjöld is a fascinating subject. Brugger's editing could have been tighter as we mentioned that he goes off on various tangents which distract from what he's ultimately trying to accomplish-identifying who killed Hammarskjöld. Still, the film is definitely worth seeing as an important history lesson and possible solution to a historical murder mystery.

Ask Dr. Ruth
(2019)

Fascinating documentary chronicles life of iconic sex therapist and media personality
Ask Dr. Ruth is not only about the meteoric rise of the world's best known sex therapist but a fascinating tale of an irrepressible and dynamic woman who endured major tragedy in her life but emerged triumphant.

Born Karola Ruth Siegel in Wiesenfeld, Germany, Dr. Ruth was shipped off to an orphanage in Switzerland after her father arranged for passage via the Kindertransport (an organized rescue effort encouraged by the British government that took place during the nine months prior to the outbreak of the Second World War which saved approximately 10,000 Jewish children from death at the hands of the Nazis).

Dr. Ruth was never to see her parents again as her father was murdered at Auschwitz (and her mother's fate ultimately unknown). Director Ryan White adroitly brings Dr. Ruth's childhood and young adult recollections to life by utilizing old photos of her and animating them. Friends from the past are interviewed which shed light on her peripatetic lifestyle and "ballsy" personality.

We soon find out some amazing stories about Dr. Ruth, that she was a sniper in Israel during the Israeli War for Independence and almost lost her legs when a missile exploded as she took cover in a bomb shelter. She reflects on her two failed marriages and then recounts her successful marriage to Fred Westheimer, an engineer, whom she met on a ski slope. There are also interviews with both her adult children as well as glimpses of her grandchildren as they are on hand to celebrate Dr. Ruth's 90th birthday.

As Dr. Ruth tells it, her lifelong interest in education led her to earn degrees as a sex therapist. In the early 80s, Dr. Ruth become a worldwide celebrity after volunteering for free to host a call-in show on a late night radio program dubbed "Sexually Speaking." The 4'7" grandmother, with her heavy but cute German-English accent, and great optimistic personality soon became an international sensation. Director White utilizes a treasure trove of archival footage including numerous forays on late night TV and other TV interviews to highlight just how big an impact Dr. Ruth has had on the general public since the 1980s.

Despite the tragic death of her husband at a very young age in his 60s in 1997, Dr. Ruth has kept going on, remaining optimistic and continuing to impart wisdom about human sexuality without making her audience uncomfortable. Dr. Ruth really is an amazing person as this documentary confirms through her sagacious words as well as from all her admirers worldwide.

Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood
(2019)

Cool TV nostalgia and late 60s neo-noir sabotaged (once again) by master of adolescent revenge fantasy
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino's tribute to the glory days of 50s TV replete with reconstructions of old TV westerns and their attendant commercials. Tarantino's main "present day" story is set in the heady days of 1969 and strictly neo-noir in tone.

The protagonist here is Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), the former star of a successful 50s TV series, "Bounty Law," whose career has taken a nose dive, now playing the villain on various contemporary television shows. His sidekick is Cliff Booth (an impressive Brad Pitt), an Army vet, who has been working for him in the capacity of stunt double as well as driver and handyman for about a decade.

The film begins with Dalton meeting with Schwarz (Al Pacino), Dalton's agent who provides a dire analysis of his career prospects and suggests that he take on work in Italy, acting in spaghetti westerns, which could be quite profitable. Dalton balks at the prospect of working as part of such cheesy enterprises and initially declines to travel to Italy. The scene is long-winded despite providing a great cameo for Pacino.

Despite its slow pace, "Hollywood" has a palpable sense of dread to it as the principals Dalton and Booth have rented a house right next to the infamous residence where Sharon Tate and her friends were murdered by the Manson gang. For a while, it actually feels like the fictional characters of Dalton and Booth could have been there, crossing paths with the real-life Manson and his crazy crew of murdering sycophants.

There's also a flashback as Booth reminiscences about a physical confrontation he got into with Bruce Lee years earlier on the set of the film The Green Hornet. It's another one of Tarantino's self-indulgent scenes which is supposed to foreshadow Booth's physical prowess. It's unfair to Lee, who is depicted as a macho bully, who purportedly wasn't as cocky and arrogant as that in real life.

Tarantino shines in his scene where Booth picks up a member of the Manson gang while hitchhiking and gives her a ride back to the Spahn Movie Ranch, where Manson's followers are holed up. Booth remembers George Spahn from his work as a stunt double at the ranch years before and wants to check on him. He's menaced by the Manson miscreants, especially Squeaky Fromme, and soon beats up Grogan, an unsavory hippie who first slashes Booth's tire. Tarantino's dialogue is particularly good here, with the Manson crew appearing quite scary and believable.

Meanwhile, more real-life personages are introduced by Tarantino, including the doomed Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who's seen taking in her own flick (The Wrecking Crew) at a local movie theater. How much this contributes to the overall story is debatable-I understand it's supposed to add to the atmosphere of the times, but the Tate part again doesn't seem well integrated into the plot.

Less successful is another long-winded sequence involving Dalton who is hired to play the heavy on a new western series, "Lancer." DiCaprio is actually quite good depicting Dalton as having a nervous breakdown on the set after forgetting his lines and then returning to give a powerful performance, impressing the series director. It's only less successful because it again just goes on for too long and needs more editing. But Tarantino can't help himself, as he loves the old TV shows, and doesn't understand that his audience might not appreciate his long-winded homages, as much as he does.

Prior to the climax, Dalton's agent convinces him to finally take on some work in Italy, where he's hired to do a few spaghetti westerns, ends up getting married and splits with Booth. All this is rather unconvincingly related by a narrator who sums up the action in a series of voice overs.

That bring us to the unfortunate denouement where once again Tarantino shows his inevitable true colors. Dalton and Booth decide to have one last drunken bender where they end up inebriated back at Dalton's house. The crazed Manson killers end up at Dalton's home where (in an alternate history), Booth and Dalton dispatch them in salacious ways (Booth ends up wounded, with a knife stuck in his leg) and Dalton uses a blowtorch (which he still happens to possess from one of his World War II pictures) to set Susan Atkins, one of the more notable of Manson's crazed followers, on fire in the backyard swimming pool.

An appropriate reaction to all this should be, "Oy vey." Once again, Tarantino invokes his unconscious cinematic mantra which is of course, let's have another puerile, adolescent revenge fantasy. Whether it be Nazis ("Inglorious Basterds"), racist slaveholders ("Django Unchained") or now hippies and the Manson Family, Tarantino takes the easy way out by shooting down a group of straw men that people just love to hate.

Why does Tarantino sabotage his movies with revenge fantasy? Deep down this is the way Tarantino can garner acceptance in the film critics' community. By dreaming up alternate historical scenarios (such as killing Hitler), it allows his audience to avoid the painful truth of reality: that the good guys don't always win and there is actual tragedy in the world where innocent people are killed (like Sharon Tate).

Don't count on Tarantino to ever dispense with his deceptive and morally bankrupt strategies. Despite his talents (and he has many!), "Hollywood" will remain part of Tarantino's standard oeuvre: entertaining exercises in nostalgia that appeal to an adolescent base thirsting for revenge, decidedly incapable of facing reality.

Them That Follow
(2019)

Basic melodramatic tropes are met but portrait of religious extremism lacks characterological complexity
Fresh from her Oscar win in The Favourite, Oliva Colman is back, this time going "all indie" in the directorial debut of newcomer scenarists Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage. Reminiscent of the earlier 2010 Indie, Winter's Bone, Them That Follow also follows a group of rural folks (this time set in Appalachia).

These "folks" are religious fundamentalists with a church run by pastor Lemuel Childs (Walton Goggins). Childs has everyone under his grip including his daughter Mara (Alice Englert), who briefly falls for the young Augie (Thomas Mann), a local auto mechanic, who has grown disillusioned with Childs' Pentecostal church.

Oh one thing I forgot to mention-the church really is a cult in which parishioners test God's power by embracing poisonous snakes. Clandestine meetings are held to avoid scrutiny by local law enforcement with Childs the number one promoter of an "us against them" mentality.

Colman plays Hope Slaughter, Augie's Mom, and she's just about as fanatical as the pastor. Mara is now towing the party line and agrees to an arranged marriage with Childs' hand-picked suitor, the dutiful sycophant Garrett (Lewis Pullman), who soon learns that Mara is pregnant with Augie's child. Eventually the pastor is forced to expel him from the church after he tries to rape Mara, in revenge for her so-called betrayal.

Most unconvincingly, Augie decides to forsake his contempt for the church and agrees to undergo a ritual snake bite ceremony, in order to prove his love for Mara. After being bitten by a snake during the ceremony, Augie falls deathly ill and even his Mom refuses to countenance the idea of taking him to the hospital. She even goes along with the parishioners who end up sawing off Augie's arm in a last ditch attempt to save his life.

Mara finally comes around at film's end, defies her father (who excommunicates her) and drives Augie to the hospital where presumably he'll be cured. Hope by the way also sees the light and realizes that the drive to the hospital is a "good thing."

Them That Follow is a grim story in which all melodramatic tropes are checked off. Augie is the broken victim and deep down Mara is the angel who realizes the error of her ways after being brainwashed by her evil pastor-dad. The script is strictly "black and white" with few shades of gray. Somehow the characters here need to be more complex, with perhaps the bad guys infused with some charm (as well as humanity) and the good ones, a little less angelic.

All performers manage to acquit themselves nicely, especially Colman who once again does well in the intense part as the obsessed "believer." Them that Follow is a bit slow moving with one too many snake handling scenes, which ends up becoming repetitious.

In the end, one wonders how newcomers Poulton and Savage came up with their sensational story and characters of religious extremism; is it based on an article culled from the tabloids? One gets the impression that the screenwriters really only know of their religious fundamentalist characters from a distance, as they are painted too unsympathetically, with little verisimilitude to boot.

L'homme fidèle
(2018)

Breezy rom-com from French actor turned director still needs a few more twists and turns in the plot
A Faithful Man is actor turned director Louis Garrel's foray into romantic comedy. Garrel, son of noted French director Phillippe Garell, is also co-writer here and ends up clocking in at a mere 75 minutes of screen time. You might suspect just looking at the running time that the film might be deficient in terms of its basic narrative. And in fact (sad to report), this is where indeed Garrel's effort sadly leaves us "asking for more."

A Faithful Man begins interestingly enough with Garrel himself playing the film's hapless protagonist, Abel, a freelance TV journalist of sorts, who is blindsided by his girlfriend of three years, Marianne (Laetitia Casta) who announces one day out of the blue that she's pregnant by Abel's best friend Paul and plans on moving in with him post-haste.

Flash forward nine years with Abel still pining for Marianne who is suddenly left a widow when Paul drops dead of an apparent heart attack (Paul is never seen on screen). That's Abel's cue to get back together with his former love, only to suddenly hesitate when Marianne's pre-pubescent son Joseph (Joseph Engel), a fledgling crime buff, informs that he believes that his mother poisoned his father.

With that engaging plot twist, we're expecting the film might veer in the direction of neo-noir but again sad to report, nothing of the sort transpires. Rather, Marianne pours cold water on our hopes of suspense when she informs Abel that she's aware that Joseph has already been peddling that story around, perhaps to ward off any future moves by potential suitors of his mother.

The rest of A Faithful Man focuses on Eve, Paul's younger sister (played by Johnny Depp's sister, Lily-Rose Depp) who reveals that she's been obsessed with Abel since childhood. Again, there's a hint that we might be veering back into neo-noir territory as Eve has the potential of being some kind of "Fatal Attraction" nut case. Such desires are quashed, again by Marianne, who (in classic French style) suggests that Abel have a romantic fling with Eve, to mollify her and perhaps assuage any of Abel's self-doubts about their relationship.

After the Eve-Abel hookup, she sours on him after Joseph spills the beans to Eve that Abel was acting at his mother's behest. The rather quick denouement shows Abel and Marianne reconciled, with little Joseph now accepting Abel back in the fold as potential stepfather.

Garrel shows talent as a director of actors, all of whom offer up breezy, convincing performances, trapped in "les affaires de coeur." But still plot-wise Garrel and co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière could have proffered up a bit more in terms of twists and turns in the plot, which may have resulted in a better reception from the critics, who so far have given the film a mixed reception.

Rocketman
(2019)

Tale of iconic pop superstar devolves into A Star is Born (but with much better music!)
After taking over the helm of Bohemian Rhapsody when disgraced director Bryan Singer was forced out, director Dexter Fletcher is back, this time covering an even more iconic pop star, Elton John. His Rocketman has been described as a "jukebox musical" but with all of John's songs out of chronological order. So for example, John's 2001 hit, I want love, ends up at the beginning of the picture, during John's childhood, sung by the young Elton and his parents.

John apparently wanted it this way as the songs are supposed to reflect his inner feelings at the time and since some of them are staged as over the top spectacles (during the Rocketman number, actor Taron Edgerton playing John is shot into the sky as a rocket!), one tends to ignore the haphazard chronology.

As for Edgerton, he's probably best with the choreography, staging some entertaining, up tempo dance numbers throughout (coupled with a multitude of nifty costume choices). Less successful are his vocals which are decent enough but let's face it, how can anyone equal the Elton John originals?

The film starts with a framing device as John walks into what appears to be an AA meeting and begins telling his story from the beginning. For a good part of the film, his life in flashbacks is not only entertaining (due to the great music) but quite informative as well. Especially interesting is John's musical talent as a child-he could hear a tune on the radio and play it back on the piano immediately!

Less successful is screenwriter Lee Hall's depiction of John's parents who come off as unaffectionate and distant (the father) or highly critical (the mother). This is based on John's recollections to this day; apparently the pop star was particularly distressed by memories of his father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) showing affection to his stepbrothers later on.

But other family members (particularly John's stepmother) disputed John's portrait of a remote and unfeeling parent. She reported that she still has the receipt for John's original piano which the father purchased (not the mother, which is what John recalls). Furthermore, the stepmother maintains John's father was actually proud after he became famous and attended his concerts.

The same goes for the vindictive portrait of the mother who actually blurts out that she wished she never had children in the film. But the real life story appears more complex as John's mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) often defended her son and expressed pride in his success. It might have been better if director Fletcher overruled John and his screenwriter and presented a more sympathetic, balanced picture of the parents.

John's rise to the top keeps us absorbed as we learn many things about how he became successful. Of particular interest is his stint as a child prodigy at the Royal Academy of Music; his time as a teenager with Bluesology, a rock band that ends up playing backup for a touring American soul band; how he met his lyricist, Bernie Taupin (an endearing Jamie Bell) and his doomed dalliance with manager John Reid (Richard Madden), with whom he has his first gay relationship.

Rocketman eventually morphs into the similar cinematic tale of alcohol addiction, A Star is Born (except having much better music). John's debauchery is on full display toward the last third of movie and it suffers due to the obsession with the icon's sad sack days. His resurrection into a sober and confident married father, now accepting his sexuality, is only mentioned briefly during the closing credits. Yes of course it happened but somehow there could have been a little less emphasis on this sad chapter and rather emphasizing much more of the positive in the multi-talented singer/composer's life.

For all its limitations, Rocketman still manages to entertain and inform, so it's worth a shot, even if you must wait until it appears on cable TV.

The Art of Self-Defense
(2019)

It'll keep your interest but portrait of sadistic, fascistic karate sensei proves too unsavory for good satire
The Art of Self-Defense is the new Jesse Eisenberg vehicle written and directed by Riley Stearns. It's purportedly a "satire" but more akin to "black comedy." The characters are farcical and not meant to be drawn realistically. As Eric Bentley once informed us, good farce permits "the outrage" but spares us the "consequences." Unfortunately The Art of Self-Defense has too many "consequences" of an unpleasant nature for us to grow fond of it in any shape or form.

Eisenberg plays the protagonist, Casey, a nerd and milquetoast par excellence who works as an accountant for a non-descript company in an unspecified urban location and time period. One day Jesse is beaten senselessly by a group of unidentified motorcyclists whose identities are hidden as they are all wearing helmets that completely cover their heads and faces.

After recuperating from his injuries, Casey first entertains defending himself by purchasing a firearm. Soon afterward however, he passes by a local dojo (karate school) and ends up signing up for lessons. The sensei there (Alessandro Nivola) is the antagonist. One of the mottos on the wall advises that those who feel the need to use firearms are weak.

Despite the noble sentiments, the sensei turns out to be an outright fascist who lords over a locked hidden room where he employs a fully operational oven to cremate unfortunate souls who might end up dead inside the dojo for varying reasons (one of the students hangs himself after the sensei expels him from the school and ends up inside the oven!).

The bulk of the story concerns how the sensei attempts to transform Casey from a mousy nerd into the image of a completely amoral (and immoral) testosterone-fueled, macho hard head. While Casey likes French and enjoys listening to middle of the road music, the sensei encourages him to constantly listen to heavy metal music and speak German.

Soon Casey falls under the spell of the charismatic sensei and is flattered when his teacher bestows upon him a yellow belt for his steadfastness and loyalty. But Casey loses respect for his mentor's program after he finds his dog beaten to death inside his apartment (we later find out that the dog was killed at the hands of one of the dojo students, ordered by the sensei!).

If there's one moment in the film that will certainly alienate the casual filmgoer, it's this one. Such a moment will probably convince you that whatever claims the film makes on possessing humorous underpinnings, is lost by this sudden and extremely regrettable plot twist!

There is a sub-plot here involving Anna (Imogene Poots), the only female student at the dojo, who is constantly humiliated by the sensei and never promoted despite her obvious talents. Anna ultimately joins forces with Casey after he discovers that the motorcycle gang who initially mugged him, was organized by the sensei himself.

The climax here makes little sense as somehow the crafty sensei lets his guard down after Casey challenges him to a fight to the death which he knows he will lose. Instead, Casey whips out the pistol he had purchased (at the beginning of his journey) and simply shoots the karate master to death (how does the "master" allow this to so easily happen?).

The Art of Self-Defense will keep your interest and for that I give it a 5 out of 10. But there is something very unsavory here that should not be applauded. Good satire attempts to tear its antagonists down with humor. But there's something likeable about such antagonists-here the sensei is as mean and unlikable as they come!

The Other Story
(2018)

Worthy exploration of secular vs. ultra-religious in modern Israel somewhat compromised by unwieldy plot
Director Avi Nesher's The Other Story is a notable entry in Israeli cinema chronicling the conflicts between the ultra-religious and the secular. This is one of the main conflicts in Judaism today so the subject matter is certainly quite interesting. Nesher's execution however, is only partially successful.

The film focuses on Anat (Joy Rieger) who falls for an ex-Israeli pop singer Shahar (Nathan Goshen) who has now turned to ultra-orthodox Judaism with Anat falling for and following him in his strict religious ways.

Anat's secular family--consisting of the family patriarch, psychologist Shlomo (Sasson Gabi, well known for his performance as the hated uncle in Shtisel and in the recent Broadway musical, A Band's Visit), her estranged father, a research psychologist Yonatan (Yuval Segal), who lives in the US and Tali, Yonatan's ex-wife--all are alarmed at Anat's sudden embrace of the ultra-religious, but are even more alarmed by having discovered that Shahar has not been able to give up his Oxycodone addiction.

Tali and Shlomo team up to try and undermine the marriage due to their outright contempt for the haredim (ultra-religious Jews). Meanwhile, Yonatan's attempts to reconcile with Anat appear doomed as she is unable to forgive him for abandoning her and the family, and running off to America.

The tension is palpable and the conflicts within the family are drawn nicely. However, there is little complexity when it comes to showing what the ultra-orthodox are like (please watch Shtisel on Netflix to find out in detail about what that insular culture is all about!).

The Other Story becomes unwieldy with the introduction of a subplot involving a warring couple, Rami (Maayan Bloom) and Sari (Avigail Harari) whose marital battle must be mediated by Shlomo upon orders of the Court. Shlomo convinces Yonatan to take over the case despite his lack of experience as a clinician. Soon, most unconvincingly, Anat is brought in as an independent arbiter (apparently she had past social work experience).

It seems Sari's interest in a feminist, pagan cult has convinced Rami that their son is in danger (especially when the child is tied up during one of the cult's rituals). Anat pronounces the ceremony harmless and recommends that the child not be taken away from the mother. Oddly enough, Anat and Sari seemingly bond despite being on opposing sides of the secular ultra-orthodox divide.

Following Shlomo and Yonatan's final recommendation that the parents retain joint custody of their child, Rami kidnaps the son and ends up hiding in a convent in the suburbs. You can probably guess that all's well that ends well with the psychologists along with Anat refusing to turn Rami in and then order the estranged couple to work things out.

There is also another sub-plot involving Yonatan being sued in a lawsuit over a start-up that goes bad. Only the prospect of Yonatan perhaps having to face the music back in the US rings true. but his sudden reconciliation with Anat at film's end--along with Rami and Sari trying to work things out--doesn't exactly feel very credible.

The Other Story is certainly worth seeing with all-around good performances from the thespians involved. See it for the aforementioned well-elucidated exploration of the secular versus religious conflict in Israel today. Only a plot that turns a bit awkward detracts from the film which might have received one or two extra points from a few discerning critics who have already chimed in on the film's (both) positive and negative attributes.

Teen Spirit
(2018)

Novice screenwriter/director's take on a teen vocal competition proves mediocre at best
Teen Spirit is British actor turned first time screenwriter Max Minghella's directorial debut. It's a drama about an American Idol-like contest in the UK. Minghella's protagonist is Violet Valenski (Elle Fanning), a teenager of Polish origin who resides on the Isle of Wight (where Minghella himself hails from).

The plot is rather simple: Violet is taken under the wing of one Vlad played by the Croatian actor, Zlatko Buric. He plays a washed up opera singer who offers to be her manager. Buric is supposed to play a character who's endearing but physically he's unpleasant to look at (not only disheveled but overweight to boot). I'm not sure why we're supposed to root for Vlad, especially after he offers to represent Violet for 50% of the winnings. Only after Violet's ballsy mother sets him straight about his remuneration as manager, is Violet permitted to try out for the contest.

There's very little else to say about Teen Spirit. I suppose if Vlad had a little bit more of a backstory, things could have been a bit more interesting. But he doesn't and has little to do in his interactions with Violet (there's a brief scene where he gives her some perfunctory breathing exercises). There's also a rather predictable twist when Violet fails to get selected for the show but later is accepted when the girl to whom she initially lost is disqualified.

A subplot involving an aggressive record club exec trying to sign Violet to an exploitative record contract results in one of the few moments of tension-this leads to a brief falling out between Vlad and Violet but things of course are made whole in the end.

As for the Teen Spirit contest itself, we find out virtually nothing about Violet's rivals. What's more Fanning proves to have a decent enough voice but we wonder why she ends up winning the contest. In other words, her Violet character is thoroughly average. A few of the covers she sings are decent enough (Elle Goulding's "Lights" stands out) but most of the songs (and dancing) are simply not memorable.

Teen Spirit is also one of the new films that is technically below average. Just about the entire film is darkly lit and one occasionally misses the action because of the poor cinematography.

If you like American Idol or the X-Factor you might want to see this, but the bottom line is that novice writer Minghella has a ways to go before he comes up with something significantly compelling and original!

On the Basis of Sex
(2018)

Informative biopic on Ruth Bader Ginsburg's early career drifts toward hagiography
On the Basis of Sex is Mimi Leder's earnest but standard biopic of Ruth Bader Ginsburg starring Felicity Jones as the iconic Supreme Court jurist. The difficulty in crafting such an enterprise is of course avoiding hagiography, which unfortunately is what On the Basis of Sex kind of turns out to be.

Leder avoids Ginsburg's tenure as the present day Supreme Court justice and focuses on her early career as a student at Harvard Law school and later as a Rutgers professor leading the fight in an important tax case linked to the issue of sex discrimination.



The first quarter of the film deals with Ginsburg having to cope with her husband Marvin's diagnosis of testicular cancer while they're both students at Harvard Law. While he's laid up, Ginsburg takes his classes for him (as well as her own). While her efforts to help her husband were certainly noble, there isn't much conflict at this point in the narrative. Only Sam Waterston as the law school dean, and his pushing back on Ginsburg's request to finish her degree at Columbia, provides some dramatic relief.

The bulk of the film deals with the case of Moritz vs. Commissioner, the 1970 tax case in which Moritz was denied a tax deduction after hiring a nurse to care for his disabled mother. At that time, the tax code only allowed for a deduction for "a woman, a widower or divorcée, or a husband whose wife is incapacitated or institutionalized". So ironically, Ginsburg ended up championing a man who was the victim of sex discrimination in this particular (and rather anomalous) case.

Perhaps the best character in the film is Mel Wulff (Justin Theroux), the ACLU attorney whom Ginsburg is referred to by noted civil rights activist Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates). Theroux does a fine job conveying the character's folksy qualities. In contrast, Jones as Ginsburg gives a virtual generic performance. Perhaps it's also screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman fault, as Ginsburg's idiosyncrecies are not at all evident. Only Ginsburg's conflict with a rebellious daughter is trotted out to flesh out her character.

Things pick up a bit toward the climax when Ginsburg loses her cool during a practice moot court and it's decided that her husband will be first chair during the final Court of Appeals hearing. Jones has her best moment when she offers up a stirring summation which leads the court to strike down the antiquated laws that kept the shibboleth of sex discrimination in place for so many years.

On the Basis of Sex provides some information about Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her early career that is certainly informative. But what makes Ginsburg different from other civil rights pioneers who have gone up against the establishment and won? I don't see this film answering that question. Perhaps focusing upon the later unlikely friendship between Ginsburg and the right-wing conservative Supreme Justice Scalia, would have proven more interesting.

Doubles vies
(2018)

Breezy distillation of affairs of the heart (the French way) despite plethora of overlong "digital vs. print" discussion
Non-fiction is the English title for the French film "Double Lives," a comedy by the noted French director Olivier Assayas. From the beginning you know you will be watching a long involved talk-fest which begins with an opening scene of a very long-winded lunch/business conversation between a publisher (Guillaume Canet as Alain) and his long-time author (Vincent Macaigne as Léonard).

Léonard doesn't get it at first, but Alain makes it clear he won't be publishing Léonard 's next novel as he feels he's lost his edge. Léonard classifies his writing as "auto-fiction"; he uses events from his own life but simply changes the name (hence the "autobiographical" nature of his work). The ultimate question as to the plot is whether Alain will relent and end up publishing Léonard's latest work despite his misgivings.

In between, there's a ton of talk about digital versus print publishing primarily conducted between Alain and his assistant for digital communications at the publishing house, Laure, with whom he's been having an affair. All this talk is dense and kind of hard to understand unless you happen to speak French (in other words, keeping up with the English subtitles is a chore when the characters start pontificating about their various positions on this subject).

If you're willing to put up with all the aforementioned intellectual pontificating, then the rest of Non-fiction is a breezy romp between the principals, which Francophiles will particularly enjoy (remember the French are experts about affairs between the opposite sex and leave we Americans in the dust!).

In addition to Alain and Laure, there's also Alain's wife Selena (played by Juliette Binoche), a TV actor for a crime series, who has been having an affair with Léonard for a fair number of years.

Léonard, the insufferable narcissist that he is, promises Selena at one point, that she won't be identifiable in his new novel. But later he admits that he's unable to separate the facts of his personal life from the "fiction" that he creates.

I'll leave you guessing as to whether Alain relents and publishes Léonard 's novel. Let's just say Selena ends up influencing her husband significantly. If you're willing to put up with the plethora of intellectual discussions, Non-fiction is a perfectly acceptable entry in this year's hodgepodge of independent foreign films.

Booksmart
(2019)

Witty dialogue trumps predictable plot in enjoyable last day of high school coming of age romp
Booksmart is actor turned first time director Olivia Wilde's coming of age tale set on the last day at a Los Angeles high school in an upscale neighborhood. The protagonists are Molly (Beanie Feinstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever). Feinstein is Jonah Hill's sister in real life and doesn't rest on nepotism to further her career-she's actually quite talented. Feinstein's Molly, a somewhat portly but real brainy valedictorian is best friends with Amy, "out" for two years, who has a crush on a fellow female student, Ryan.

As an overachiever, Molly is dismayed to learn that most of her fellow students are going to Ivy League schools as well, but managed to breeze by without her overly serious and nose to the grindstone demeanor. So Molly convinces Amy that their last night after high school should be spent partying, to prove somehow that they aren't just a duo of stick-in-the-muds.

The Act II adventure begins when the intrepid pals attempt to locate a party thrown by Nick, the class vice president, the tall, handsome dude Molly has a crush on. They're aware it's at Nick's aunt's house but they don't know the address. Their misadventures before arriving at Nick's and at his party, are really only a vehicle to showcase the witty banter between the two principals. This is really Booksmart's primary selling point.

Indeed there is a high level of intelligence in the banter between Molly and Amy especially when Amy delivers (for example) such witty bon mots as to why she's going to Botswana for a summer internship (Uganda is out of the question since she fears she might be executed due to the country's condemnation of gay sexuality; in Botswana she's free to give out tampons for sex education!).

You'll also notice that Booksmart really has no certifiable external antagonists. The usual group of high school bullies is missing and their classmates are a group of ditsy cut-ups, including Jared, a do-gooder whose kind-hearted acts are motivated by guilt feelings about being wealthy; Gigi, seemingly bipolar, who slips drugs into some of Molly and Amy's food while on Jared's yacht, later causing them to hallucinate; and their acerbic, witty gay friend George, who throws a wild (funny!) Murder Mystery party.

There are no real mean adults either which include Amy's overly well-meaning Christian parents; Mr. Brown, their high school principal who moonlights as a Lyft driver and Ms. Fine, a teacher at their school, who picks Molly and Amy up at a crucial moment when Molly calls her just before her cell phone runs out. An opportunity is lost when the film's scenarists fail to develop Amy's parents as fully fleshed out characters. Worse yet, we never meet Molly's parents at all!

Without external antagonists, it's Molly and Amy's internal arcs that drive the narrative. Both at heart are insecure about being successful in a romantic relationship. The second act "dark moment" occurs when Molly and Amy have a falling out after Amy accuses Molly of being manipulative and overbearing, always ordering her what to do. Before the inevitable apology, Amy gets involved with Hope, a gay student, who has a reputation for being "cruel" among her classmates.

The Booksmart screenplay was written by four different writers and it shows. The plot is wildly uneven and the payoff when they finally arrive at Nick's party is a little bit of a letdown. Some of it is quite amusing (such as the previously alluded to "Murder Mystery" play) but not all the hijinks are laugh out loud funny.

Go see Booksmart for Feinstein's and Dever's standout comic performances. And take note of Wilde's directing skills, not only of the actors but in the excellent editing and cinematography on hand here as well. Despite the rather predictable plot, Booksmart features some top notch dialogue, that will keep you amused pretty much throughout.

Shazam!
(2019)

Comic book action film features most unappealing screen villain in recent memory
Another comic book action film has come down the pike, this one based on the DC comic book of the same name. It's set in modern day Philadelphia and focuses on a troubled teen, Billy Batson (played by 16 year old Asher Angel), who's been searching for his birth mother ever since he was lost at an amusement park as a child. He ends up at a group home run by the kindly Victor and Rosa Vasquez, who are in charge of a group of lovable kids straight out of the Steven Spielberg playbook.

Heading the motley group is Freddy Freeman (played by Jack Dylan Grazer who steals the show as a disabled kid who walks with a limp and also happens to be the resident superhero expert at the group home). Freddy befriends Billy who is transformed into the superhero Shazam played by an adult Zachary Levi. With all the previously alluded to "lovable" characters, where does Shazam go wrong?

It all has to do with a simply atrocious antagonist, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, played by Mark Strong. We first meet Thaddeus when he's a kid, on a car trip with his father and brother in the early 70s. Somehow Thaddeus is transported to the "Rock of Eternity," a magical temple where he's rejected by an old bearded wizard who makes it clear that Thaddeus will not be chosen to fight the Seven Deadly Sins who have been unleashed to wreak havoc upon the world by a previous corrupt "champion."

Right after Thaddeus's supernatural encounter, the three are involved in a terrible car accident, leaving the father paralyzed for life and blaming poor Thaddeus for causing the accident. All well in good until in the present day, Thaddeus becomes imbued with power from the Seven Deadly Sins and decides to kill both his father and brother; after dispatching the brother (who also blamed him for the decades old car accident), the father meets a particularly gruesome end when the now grown up Thaddeus throws him unmercifully out the window of a skyscraper, after interrupting a board meeting of his father's mega rich corporation.

The massacre of the father, brother and their co-workers is ludicrously unrealistic as we never see the follow-up police investigation nor an emotional reaction from anyone who's become aware of what apparently would have been tremendous tragedy in real life. It's a scene that's completely inappropriate for children (of any age) and sets a very bad tone for the rest of the movie. In fact, from this atrocious scene onward, Thaddeus never wavers in his lack of charm or humor and proves to be one of the most unappealing screen villains in recent memory.

There is very little more to say about Shazam as the plot features Thaddeus trying to do in Shazam at every turn with the assistance of his Seven Deadly Sins (made to resemble gargoyles through a series of calculated CGI effects). Shazam, by the way, after uttering his very name, is transformed from the teen aged Billy into a goofy muscleman, unable at first to control his adolescent urges for fame and fortune. Of course in the end, Shazam (or should we say Billy?) learns an important life lesson about the pitfalls of materialism.

Along the way, Thaddeus kidnaps Freddy and the foster kids and parents and Shazam has to save them. There's also a subplot where Billy makes the disappointing discovery that his birth mother lost him on purpose when he was a child, as she was too immature to care for him at the time (given the downer of a story line involving Thaddeus and his creepy "sins," did we really need an additional downbeat turn in the plot, with Billy being rejected a second time by his mother?).

Thaddeus and the Seven Deadly Sins are of course defeated in the big amusement park finale where the forces of "good and evil" do battle. In the end, one can only throw up one's hands and blurt out: "who cares!" Someone is laughing all the way to the bank, but it sure isn't the parents of the kids who shell out their hard-earned money for high-priced tickets so their kids can indulge themselves in their self-defeating comic book reveries.

Long Shot
(2019)

Rogen as smug speechwriter attempts belittlement of right-wing opposition through use of crude sexual innuendo
As a life-long Democrat, one must concede that there are those among us who are so smug in their contempt for the "other side," that they lose sight of a crucial political dictum: respect your opponents (even if you don't agree with them). The failure to follow such an obvious guidepost may have cost Hillary and her team the 2016 election.

Perhaps the most asinine and smug candidate carrying the liberal banner in Hollywood today, is one Seth Rogen. How does such an arrogant and pompous non-entity actually accrue a following? I'm no great fan of Michael Moore (who also manages to win accolades for being smug and pompous), but at least Moore occasionally has some ideas. Rogen, on the other hand, is completely bereft of the necessary intellect to comment on any aspect of the contemporary scene.

Instead, he relies on appealing to the lowest common denominator: crude sexual innuendo; all the while insisting that he is a champion of women (note in his fantasy "White House tour," he unveils a series of paintings of the first Ladies, with calculated approbative comment).

In Long Shot, Rogen is Fred Flarsky, supposedly a witty journalist for the Brooklyn Advocate, the fictional equivalent of the now defunct Village Voice. When the paper is bought out by a Rupert Murdoch stand-in, Parker Wembley, Flarsky promptly curses him out at a party and then falls down the stairs, flat on his face.

Flarsky just so happens to bump into Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron), the secretary of state who works for the Donald Trump-lite President Chambers who soon informs Field he chooses not to run again because he wants to break into movies (he's a former TV star!). Ugh!

Field was Flarsky's "babysitter" when she was a high school student and Flarsky just turned thirteen. Somehow Flarsky's so-called embarrassment about getting an erection in front of Field back in the day is supposed to be funny. It isn't. Nor is Field's lame response to Flarsky's lack of control (I guess she finds it all a bit "cute").

So when Field hires the newly unemployed Flarsky to be one of her speechwriters after she announces her candidacy for president,, one simply cannot understand why the attractive Field would be attracted to a schlub like Flarsky. But even more cringeworthy is when she ends up having sex with him (one must avert one's eyes from the screen in these moments).

Fortunately there's June Diane Raphael as Maggie Millkin, Field's smart-as-a-button assistant who sees through Flarsky, and has the best lines in the film, putting him down as the fakir he is. Meanwhile, there's more "cuteness" from the obnoxious Rogen (I mean Flarsky), who gets Field high on ecstasy and she miraculously negotiates the return of a US spy detained by a Middle Eastern dictator.

Flarsky's big thing is pointing out the lack of transparency and moral scruples of those in government, and he hesitates in joining Field's team at the beginning of the second act "adventure." Eventually Field "disappoints" him when she caves in to Wembley and President Chambers by agreeing to dispense with a grand environmental bill she had been touting. Of course (you guessed it), she changes her mind (much to Flarsky's unmitigated joy) and suddenly finds herself in the second act dark moment: an extortion bid by Wembley and the Trump-like president.

You're not really going to believe what the two baddies use to blackmail Field. It's a video of Flarsky jerking off! And then when Field "confesses" on national TV that Flarsky has been her boyfriend all-along and that he's been the victim of blackmail on the part of the President and the Fox-News clone, the public finds this oh so cute. Flarsky is now some kind of hero and she's elected as the first female president. Oy vey! Only in liberal Hollywood, folks, does a masturbating schnook become the first "First Man."

Seth Rogen may be the most repulsive Hollywood celebrity (and so-called actor) out there today. As far as Theron-I see no justification for why an actor of her stature would get involved in a project such as this. For all fellow Democrats: If you have a shred of decency left, realize that being on the winning side doesn't always translate to victory. Avoid this one like the plague at all costs!

The Wind
(2018)

Novice director of horror-western yarn has a bright future despite multitude of horror film tropes
If you're making your initial foray into filmmaking, what better example to emulate than director Emma Tammi's freshman horror-western effort, The Wind. Utilizing a script by Teresa Sutherland who adapted a 1925 novel of the same name along with late 19th century accounts of demonic possession on the frontier, The Wind is a great example of how to create a low budget film and how to get it made.

Tammi found the perfect location: two cabins on two parcels of land in New Mexico out in the middle of nowhere. Add in a cast of only five and you've solved potential budget difficulties which have sunk so many novice filmmakers in the past.

Technically, Tammi has proven she has the potential to be a big-time Hollywood director given her astute knowledge of cinematography and sound mixing. The Wind is a beautiful looking film replete with a multitude of camera angles reminiscent of what you would expect from much more seasoned filmmakers. And the way Tammi cuts from one scene to another utilizing different sound effects, sets her apart as a consummate pro.

That said, The Wind falls flat in the narrative department. It's a slow-moving drama replete with one horror film trope after another. After Lizzy Macklin (Caitlin Gerard) gives birth to a stillborn child, she begins experiencing auditory and visual hallucinations, convinced she's being stalked by an evil entity. Is the entity real or imagined? Certainly her frequently absent husband Isaac (Ashley Zukerman) is convinced she's delusional. It's not until the end of the second act that anything of import occurs-before it's either menacing wolves, a gutted goat or all kinds of sound effects suggesting something bad is going to happen to Lizzy.

The plot finally develops following the introduction of another couple, Gideon (Dylan McTee) and Emma Harper (Julia Goldani Telles), who have purchased a cabin on an adjoining plot of land. Eventually, Lizzy becomes convinced that Emma is having an affair with her husband.

The principals here are saddled by a script that features dialogue too reminiscent of our own time instead of characters speaking in the midst of the late 19th century. Only Miles Anderson manages to stand out as the grizzly faced reverend who either proves to be a kindly minister of godly ways or a menacing demon, depending whether you're relying on Lizzy's point of view.

SUPER SPOILERS AHEAD. The Wind finally picks up in the third act as it becomes clear that Lizzy is using an alleged case of demonic possession to hide her nefarious conduct which includes the murder of her husband, neighbor Emma and The Reverend. Perhaps it all comes down to bitterness over the loss of her child, but in the end the intrepid prairie woman wins the appellation of murderess over mental health victim. It's a welcome ("Angel Heart-like") revelation which unfortunately takes a little too long to become known due to the script's lugubrious pacing and lack of the requisite (earlier) plot twists and turns.

The Third Wife
(2018)

Novice Vietnamese director's beautiful critique of patriarchal culture offset by weakly drawn antagonists
How can this beautifully shot, impressively crafted take on the subjugation of women in late 19th century Vietnam not be everyone's cup of tea? Certainly the film's subject matter personally meant quite a bit to debut director Ash Mayfair, who based the narrative on the experiences of her great-grandmother.

Mayfair chronicles the interior and exterior life of a 14 year old bride, May (played by 12 year old Nguyen Phoung Tra My), who becomes the third wife of a wealthy landowner, Hung May soon comes to realize that she's lower in the pecking order in relation to her predecessors: Wife #1 Ha (Tran Nu Yen Khe) and Wife #2 Xuan (Mai Thu Huong).

May soon learns that her primary objective is to produce a male child and despite enduring the unpleasant experience of losing her virginity with "Master" Hung, she remains devoted to the idea that perpetuating the Hung male line is not necessarily a bad thing.

Mayfair's plot involves various machinations among the wives including Xuan's clandestine affair with Son, Hung's adult son with first wife Ha, as well as some lesbian yearnings on May's part toward the much more experienced Xuan. There's also subplot involving Son who rejects another of his father's hand-picked brides, Lien.

Mayfair does well in depicting the constricted lives of the women and how they must cope within a system that's stacked against them. You might guess that things turn out rather tragically for May, after she gives birth to a daughter.

While normally my movie-going tastes rarely extend to such downbeat tales, Mayfair manages to highlight the quiet dignity of her protagonist in a way that partly draws you in. Nonetheless, overall there is something about the film that left me cold. It wasn't so much the film's glacial pacing but the inability of Mayfair to flesh out any of her antagonists. Simply put the men are ciphers who display no idiosyncrasies which would mark them as multi-dimensional human beings.

Without the presence of the aforementioned "fleshed-out" antagonists, The Third Wife feels more like an exercise in agitprop-content to echo the theme of women's subjugation ad infinitum. We get the whole idea early on that this is going to be a rather obvious critique of patriarchal culture. With a crucial missing "part," The Third Wife indeed may prove to be not everyone's cup of tea. Nonetheless, Mayfair still has proven to be a force to be reckoned with as she moves forward in her career as a talented and dedicated auteur.

Captive State
(2019)

Twist ending climax of sci-fi alien occupation allegory is great despite long-winded, convoluted second act
Captive State is a film that I went back and saw a second time because there was so much I missed the first time around. Many reviewers focused on the film as an allegory about authoritarianism but missed the core of what the narrative was really all about-a Twilight Zone-like sci-fi thriller with a powerful twist ending. If you don't realize that there's a twist ending involved here, much of the story will appear quite convoluted--the pronouncement in fact of many reviewers who simply couldn't follow a good deal of the plot. I'm going to go ahead and reveal what the twist is all about here so if you haven't seen the film, you might wait until you do and then read this review.

Some of you might recall the film Alien Nation or the TV series of the same name. Captive State is sort of a reverse Alien Nation-instead of the aliens arriving on earth and ending up as a discriminated minority, the aliens here immediately crush the military might of all the countries on earth and set themselves up as a group of deadly overseers, much akin to the Nazi occupiers in Vichy France during World War II.

The story is set in Chicago in the year 2027, nine years after the alien invasion. The aliens have constructed a "closed zone" in the middle of the city and exist way underground, rarely making an appearance on earth's surface (the aliens look like giant, powerful insects who communicate by using a clicking sound which has been utilized in a host of other past sci-fi productions featuring insect-like aliens).

Just as in Vichy France, the populace is ruled by a group of collaborators, who enforce the rules of the aliens who have dubbed themselves "legislators." The aliens have outlawed all digital communication, so the media utilized are reminiscent of the kind of analog communication that went on in the 70s and 80s, prior to the advent of smart phones and the internet (for example, pictures are taken with Polaroid cameras).

One of the protagonists, Gabriel (Ashton Sanders), works on a factory that saves the digital data for the aliens but destroys the chips and media card the data is stored on. The part of Gabriel is a weak one and notably at a certain point in the film, the character disappears for twenty minutes and you wonder what happened to him. Suffice it to say, Gabriel is protected by a former police detective and now head of internal security for the collaborators, William Mulligan (played by a taciturn but rather good John Goodman). Mulligan proves to be the most interesting character in the film. He's trying to protect the rebellious Gabriel from falling afoul of alien rule as Mulligan was friends with Gabriel's father, also a detective prior to the invasion.

The real bulk of the action concerns a conspiracy of rebels who communicate with one another often by placing print ads in newspapers. They refer to a "Number One," the leader of the group who is to somehow become unwittingly the alien's trusted agent and set off a bomb while welcomed into their lair. Most of the conspirators are unaware who Number One is. The twist is that Mulligan, who appears to be the #1 collaborator, is actually the #1 conspirator, entrusted with setting off the bomb deep in alien headquarters underground.

A good part of the film involves the conspiracy to set off a bomb at Soldier field, where a collaborator unity rally is being held. The allegorical nature of the story is made clear during this rally where a complacent public is depicted as submissive, lulled into believing the aliens have brought unity to the planet.

This is where the film loses focus--because if you don't realize that the conspirators are all on a suicide mission and their plan is designed to fail, you will find a good deal of what happens before you, confusing (to put it mildly). It's Mulligan who is made to look good as he seemingly uncovers the conspiracy and eliminates it-all designed to impress the aliens, who put him in charge as Acting Commissioner at the surprising climax. Since the Commissioner is the only one allowed to enter the Closed Zone, Mulligan is seen at film's entry headed down into the alien lair, about to set off his bomb.

Captive State has a great twist ending but might have worked better as a one hour cable TV episode as part of a sci-fi series. In the end, the second act machinations are too convoluted and confusing with the entire plot involving the conspiracy (which turns out to be a staged set-up) proving to be not so exciting with rather predictable scenes of annihilation by alien entities who have come out of their cocoon deep underground.

Captive State is filled with clues throughout to suggest things aren't really what they seem. Look for the "trojan horse" illustration on the wall at the prostitute's home. Also note that Mulligan tells Gabriel right before his final mission, that "maybe" the plan all along, was DESIGNED to fail. And finally, traces of the bomb (made out of phosphorescent material) are seen flashing briefly on Mulligan's back right before he goes into the contraption that sends him into the belly of the beast.

Captive State is certainly worth a look (or even a second one), despite a poorly edited and drawn out second Act, since the climax wields a powerful punch.

The Mustang
(2019)

Predictable tale of inmate-horse bonding would have been better as a full-length documentary
Another Sundance import has come down the pike and as usual with such atmospheric projects, it must remain immune from any serious criticism from the film critic community. That's because The Mustang is one of those "well-meaning" missives on the subject of inmate rehabilitation. The inmate in question is Roman Coleman (played rather glumly by the Belgian actor, Matthias Schoenaerts) who will eventually find redemption by bonding with a wild Mustang named Marquis (pronounced "Marcus"), part of a horse training program sponsored by the Bureau of Land Management.

The film is set in a maximum security Nevada state prison where the idea is for a few of specially selected inmates to tame the horses so they can be put up for auction (with profits going to the aforementioned agency that runs the program). How can one not be enthusiastic about a film that raves about a program that reduces recidivism rates?

Despite some great cinematography and very able direction of her actors, first time French actor turned director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre simply has chosen a subject that doesn't lend itself to great drama. Part of the problem is the main character Roman; he's basically a one-note martinet who fits the bill of the generic angry inmate.

Clermont-Tonnerre attempts to flesh Coleman out with a rather predictable back story about how he ended up doing time (guilty of a domestic violence assault against his wife) along with a series of scenes in the visitor's room where his estranged daughter pays him a visit hoping he'll sign papers deeding her the family house.

The meat of the story-where Coleman must train Marquis-eventually grows tedious as the expected bonding between man and animal takes place right on schedule. Much more successful is Bruce Dern as Myles, the old codger who runs the training program. Myles proves to be much more lively than the perennially glum Coleman.

To fill up time, there is also a sub-plot involving Henry (Jason Mitchell), the inmate who teaches Coleman how to train Marquis. He falls victim to the obligatory scene of gang violence that takes place in the exercise yard.

Finally there's the very awkward ending which is designed to be both tragic and bittersweet. SUPER SPOILERS AHEAD. During the horse auction, Marquis is spooked by a helicopter passing by overhead and runs amok. Coleman is thrown to the ground and injured, leading to the closing of the horse training program (why dream that up when the whole idea is to promote the idea of the benefits of all that bonding?).

It's a setup for Myles to clue Coleman in that he can open the gates and allow Marquis to escape before he's put down. Despite the program's closing, Coleman will be "alright" in the knowledge that Marquis will roam free! All in all, I just didn't buy the ending where a program of such value is so easily eliminated.

The director here shows talent in terms of the technical aspects of film making. But the story simply devolves into almost one cliché after another. A better solution was to have done the film entirely as a documentary, eschewing the forced drama, leading to a more heady verisimilitude.

Tout en haut du monde
(2015)

Animated 15 year old heroine's quest to find missing explorer grandfather could be Disney's next live action special
Long Way North is a 2016 French-Danish co-production featuring the work of first time animation director Rémi Chayé who eschews the ubiquitous CGI and embraces an old-fashioned hand drawn approach. The result in terms of animation is only partially successful. The film is set in 1882 St. Petersburg, Russia as well as the northern arctic expanses of that country, featuring landscapes that resemble beautiful (as one critic puts it) 1920s railway posters. The pastel-like still images are often haunting. Unfortunately, the drawings of people here receive short shrift, resembling Japanese anime characters, with a quick line for a nose and a mouth.

That said, the clever story makes up for these missed drawing opportunities. It's a tale that could be easily transformed into a Disney live action musical, with its 15 year old heroine Sacha proving her mettle after running away from home in a brave attempt to find her missing explorer grandfather, Oloukine and his lost ship, the Duvai-with the million ruble reward promised by the Tsar for the safe return of the ship and its crew.

The inciting incident occurs when Sacha discovers a note from her grandfather suggesting that everyone has been looking in the wrong place for the missing ship. When she attempts to alert Prince Tomsky, an arrogant advisor to the Tsar and member of his inner circle, he belittles her in front of her parents and guests at a debutante's ball. Tomsky considers Oloukine's disappearance an embarrassment to the Tsar and intends to prevent the naming of a newly built library wing for the missing explorer. Not only that, he also plans to ruin Sacha's father's chance to be appointed as the new ambassador to Rome.

After Sacha is blamed for Tomsky's machinations that humiliate her father, in true Wizard of Oz fashion, she runs away from home and ends up taking a train to the coast. There she discovers the existence of The Norge-a ship with a reinforced hull-which can travel to the icy Northern seas and hopefully aid in finding the Duvai. But before convincing the Norge's captain (Lund) to take her on a sea voyage in a quest to find the Duvai, she proves her (aforementioned) mettle by working as a waitress in the White Bear tavern run by the tough-as-nails proprietress, Olga. The narrative here is reminiscent of Melville's Ishmael in Moby Dick, who meets and interacts with a group of salty seafaring characters.

The cleverness of the writing is embodied in how Sacha negotiates passage on the Norge. She's first duped by the duplicitous first mate Larson (Captain Lund's brother) who promises her passage with payment of a set of her valuable earrings. This foreshadows the subsequent scene in which Sacha is left behind but is later able to confront Larson when the crew returns early on from an ill-fated expedition up north. In this confrontation, Lund learns of his brother's duplicity and,as he is an honorable sort, agrees to allow Sacha on board and look for the Duvai, after Larson admits that he gambled away proceeds from the sale of Sacha's earrings!

Much of the rest of Long Way North is based on the true stories of the expeditions of British Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. Here Sacha and the crew must survive the elements--including navigating the ship on a storm tossed sea and using dynamite to blast through seemingly impenetrable ice floes. There are a series of exciting scenes including Captain Lund almost falling off a glacier and sustaining a serious leg injury (later he's carried on a cot after the crew decides not to abandon him in the icy expanse). The big emotional moment comes when Sacha finds the frozen corpse of her grandfather along with his logbook, which guides her and the crew to the Duvai-and eventual return to safety.

Long Way North was originally voiced in French with a later English dub. Having seen both, I must say the French version is far superior. This is a fairly sophisticated adventure story despite the overall "young adult" trappings. Take the kids to see it and wait for Disney to pick it up as a live action musical extravaganza!

Bohemian Rhapsody
(2018)

Formulaic but respectable treatment of iconic pop star featuring Malek's Oscar-winning performance
Growing up in the 60s and 70s, I was a rabid Beatles fan (and of course still am!). And there were countless other bands and solo performers that followed in their noble footsteps, and I was a big fan of them too. But one of the groups I had no interest in was Queen. There was something about their music that left me cold-maybe I just couldn't stomach the weird combination of musical theater with hard rock. And I hated bombastic (crowd singing) lyrics like "we are the champions." Occasionally they had a bona fide, really catchy hit like "Killer Queen," or "You're My Best Friend" (despite the poorly mixed and over prominent bass part on the original recording).

So you might surmise that I didn't like Bohemian Rhapsody (the film) given my history with the band. Actually, however, I found it thoroughly watchable. And yes many critics condemned it as "formulaic," which it was probably was. But my response to that is, "so what?" You don't go to see a film about Freddie Mercury to study intellectual history-you basically want to find out why the band was so popular and what the nature of Mercury's charisma was.

Much of the film's success is dependent on Rami Malek's Oscar-winning performance. His is a bravura performance, mainly highlighting Mercury's talent as a performer. But he also does well in the more dramatic moments--particularly his love/hate relationship with his bandmates: guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and bass guitarist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello).

Aside from his being gay and contracting AIDS toward the end of his life, I knew nothing about Freddie Mercury's biography and found all the information about his family background quite interesting (which included the fact he was born in Zanzibar and his family was of Indian Farsi ancestry).

The film keeps your interest through a series of escalating conflicts. In the early stage it's Mercury's rebellion against a strict and traditional father. Once Mercury joins the band, they must find a way to raise money for their first album-after selling the van the band uses to travel around for concerts, they battle a record executive over the six plus minutes length of their eventual hit, Bohemian Rhapsody (the A&R rep is actually a fictional character played by Mike Myers of all people!).

Less interesting is Mercury's relationship with a girlfriend, Mary Austin. Despite his purported devotion to her, she's merely a sounding board for Mercury's initial profession of his sexuality (he tells her he's "bisexual," but she insists that he's gay).

The band eventually leaves its record company EMI after they refuse to release Bohemian Rhapsody as a single. There's more conflict propping up when the bandmates resent Mercury for starting a relationship with his day-t0-day manager, Paul Prenter (who is later cast as the villain, spilling all the gossip about his relationship with Mercury, in a tell-all TV interview).

Mercury's liaison with Prenter as well his more successful relationship with Jim Hutton, is hardly fleshed out at all and one gets the feeling that there's a lot more known about his dealing with his bandmates then what went on in his private sex life.

Bohemian Rhapsody eventually wears out its welcome with some convenient fudging of historical events. The rift between Mercury and the rest of Queen supposedly occurred after the mercurial singer decided to cut a solo album. But truth be told, two of Queen's other players cut solo albums first. And Queen never broke up before the Live Aid concert.

Then there's the matter of AIDS diagnosis-in the film he's contracted AIDS right before Live Aid-but in reality, Mercury came down with AIDS a few years afterward. Thus all the angst before the concert, proves untrue (and hence manipulative).

Critics also were aghast over the bandmates getting their digs in against Mercury. There's the scene where they force Mercury to leave the room and discuss whether they wish to take him back into the group. Again: never happened. I don't begrudge the bandmates for sticking up for themselves however-indeed Mercury didn't write all of Queen's hits.

The Live Aid concert also proves a bit anti-climactic (better to watch the original on Youtube). I would have rather heard the full version of "Killer Queen" at some point then to have to sit through all the truncated numbers of the Live Aid concert (most of which were not necessarily their biggest hits).

I was actually glad there was little emphasis on Mercury's illness and declining years. Yes it appears he indulged himself in later years with lavish parties often characterized as "orgies." But somehow none of that diminishes Mercury's status as a cultural icon.

While I'm still not convinced of Queen's ascendancy in the pantheon of great rock groups, Bohemian Rhapsody nonetheless made me a believer in Mercury's talent more as a performer than songwriter. Like another great "performer," the iconic Michael Jackson, Mercury died way too young!

Werk ohne Autor
(2018)

Nazi era first third is more compelling than last two thirds' tale of artist's redemption in post-war Germany
This is the third feature of noted German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck who won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film with The Lives of Others back in 2007. That film was set in East Germany during the Cold War. But Never Look Away focuses on that period as well as the earlier Nazi period. You might guess that the first third of the new film (the one that is set in Nazi Germany) is far more interesting and compelling than the last two thirds-which deals with the machinations of its artist protagonist Kurt Barnert (played by Tom Schilling who never seems to age), in post-war East and West Germany.

Von Donnersmarck based his story loosely on the biography of one of the most well-known German artists, Gerhard Richter, who grew up as a young boy in the countryside near Dresden where his father worked as a teacher. In Von Donnersmarck's narrative, we first meet the young Kurt being taken to a Nazi exhibit on "degenerate art" in Dresden by his aunt Elizabeth, a sensitive woman in her early 20s, who suffers from mental instability. The fascinating theme is introduced by Von Donnersmarck who implies that the impressionable Kurt (he's a talented artist even as a kid) must deal with the legacy of Nazism from the outset, as must all his German compatriots from that generation.

Von Donnersmarck shows the evils of the Nazi regime on a personal level when aunt Elizabeth has a mental breakdown and is hospitalized against the family's wishes, eventually marked for extermination as a result of Hitler's euthanasia program. In fact, it's von Donnersmarck's sinister antagonist Professor Carl Seeband (a convincing Sebatian Koch), the head gynecologist at the women's clinic in Dresden, who signs the paperwork for Elizabeth's transfer, leading to her murder at the end of the war. Seeband, an honorary member of the SS, figures prominently in the plot and proves to be the most compelling character in the entire drama.

The collapse of the Nazi regime is revealed in a series of startling images including a sea of allied warplanes in a bombing run over Dresden, which virtually destroyed most of the city, as well as the deaths of two of Kurt's brothers in the war. Von Donnersmarck's screenplay takes a fascinating turn when Seeband is imprisoned by the Russians right after the war and saves himself by volunteering to aid a Russian commander's wife who is about to lose her child during childbirth. Von Donnersmarck manages to humanize his antagonist by highlighting his competence as a physician, despite his immoral belief in the "master race." The Russians afford Seeband with "protected status" and like many former Nazis in both East and West Germany, he rises swiftly in the new social order.

The rest of Never Look Away follows Kurt, now a young man, as he eventually becomes a noted mural painter of "socialist realism," in East Germany. Kurt eventually becomes alienated from his Communist handlers, whose penchant to bow to a new authority echoes another one of the director's adroit themes: old wine in new bottles!

Meanwhile Kurt falls in love with Seeband's daughter, Elizabeth, whom he calls "Ellie," as the name reminds him too much of his murdered aunt. Seeband flees East Germany with his wife right before the Berlin Wall goes up as the Russian commander is called back to Moscow and can no longer guarantee that he can prevent Seeband's past from catching up with him. Soon Kurt and Ellie follow suit, and end up in West Germany too.

Again the good point is made that former Nazis completely escape punishment even in West Germany, which is where Seeband sets up shop as a prominent gynecologist head in a big medical center. His aforementioned sinister nature rears its ugly head again when he convinces his daughter she's in need of an abortion on dubious medical grounds. All this to prevent his daughter from having Kurt's baby, which he believes will be inferior, due to Kurt's supposed diminished racial stock. It's all a bit melodramatic at this point with the manipulative Seeband performing the operation on his daughter himself and falsely informing her that she'll never be able to get pregnant again.

After Kurt enrolls in an art school in Dusseldorf, run by an eccentric professor who possesses an "anything goes" philosophy, von Donnersmarck's story gets bogged down in unnecessary diversions including a tour of all the pretentious type of artwork on display as part of the general curriculum at the school.

Never Look Back concludes when Kurt finds his muse and begins creating art based on old photos from his childhood and the Nazi era, which leads to new found fame. With anti-climactic aplomb, von Donnersmarck creates a scene in which Seeband finally gets his comeuppance-he's simply "unnerved" when he sees Kurt's new art work-which reminds him of course of his direct participation in the Nazi euthanasia program. Finally Ellie finds herself pregnant, despite her father's promises to the contrary.

As with most German filmmakers dealing with the legacy of Nazism, there is an emphasis on redemption. In this case, it's Kurt's new found interest in producing "meaningful" art. That's hardly a dramatic revelation and the artist's eventual liberation is communicated in a painfully lugubrious fashion. Nonetheless, the director's unflinching examination of the Nazi era and the failure of the guilty to be punished by successive German governments (whether in the East or West), is a potent reminder how justice is not always served in history, the way we would like it.

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