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Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster
(2021)

more than a monster
Greetings again from the darkness. It's a rare occurrence, but every once in a while subduing my internal fanboy is a bit of a challenge. A documentary on the career of the great Boris Karloff certainly is one of those times. Mesmerized by the Universal monster films as a kid, Karloff's appearances continued to have a hypnotic effect on me throughout his career ... a career that spanned fifty years and ended only with his death in 1969. Of course Christmas time each year returns Karloff back into our homes through his Grammy-winning voice acting in "Dr Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" Somewhat oddly, director Thomas Hamilton chooses to open the film discussing Karloff's work in Mario Bava's 1963 film BLACK SABBATH. Contemporary horror master Guillermo del Toro (THE SHAPE OF WATER, PAN'S LABYRINTH) comments that the film heavily influenced his own CRONOS (1993). It may be an unusual opening segment to kick off a discussion of Karloff's career, but understanding his stature and influence is really the legacy - it goes much deeper than his iconic Frankenstein monster. The opening credits are played over a stream of stunning chalk/graphite drawings of Karloff's many characters.

Some of the key interviews are conducted with film historians; film directors del Toro, Roger Corman, Joe Dante, and John Landis; actors Caroline Munro, Christopher Plummer, and Dick Miller; and Karloff's own daughter, Sara, who is now at an age her father never saw. For the most part, we go chronologically through Karloff's career with commentary on each of the key roles and films. The vintage footage brings back many memories and is a blast to watch - likely aided significantly by movie memorabilia collector and Karloff expert Ron MacCloskey (the film's co-writer). Karloff's physical presence on screen is noted on multiple occasions, as is his ability to emote, even through heavy makeup.

Obviously it's FRANKENSTEIN (1931) that elevated Karloff from a character actor to a star. Although surprisingly, the man himself credits Howard Hawks' THE CRIMINAL CODE (1930) as his big break. The following year, after the success of DRACULA with Bela Lugosi, Universal put Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" on the fast track and assigned James Whale to direct. Going against conventional wisdom, Whale decided not to cast Lugosi, and instead went with Karloff ... in hindsight, a decision that looks brilliant. We hear about the makeup genius Jack Pierce, who worked with Karloff's facial features in creating the now iconic look of the monster. Pierce had made an early name for himself with his work on THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923) and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925), and then spent nearly two decades creating the now familiar Universal monsters: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolfman, and of course, Elsa Lanchester's Bride in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935).

The film spends very little time on Karloff's personal life, though it mentions his six marriages, his participation in the formation of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and his at-times debilitating back pain. He often wore a metal leg brace for stability and balance, and for those who only know him as the monster and the Grinch, the segments on his later career will likely be enlightening. Karloff loved live theater and received acclaim for his stage work in "Arsenic and Old Lace". Daughter Sara confirms that he embraced television from the early days, and director Hamilton includes a clip of an elderly Karloff acting in a comedy skit with two other greats, Red Skelton and Vincent Price. As a fan, I truly appreciate some of Karloff's work in his final 10-12 years, including "Shock" theater, the "Thriller" series, and Roger Corman's THE RAVEN (1963). Beyond all of Karloff's exceptional work through multiple mediums (including children's book series), and that instantly recognizable face and voice, it's his monster's initial entrance onto the screen that remains one of the truly iconic moments in film history - even 90 years later.

The film is scheduled for a rolling release beginning September 17, 2021 and carrying through October 31.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye
(2021)

heart of gold
Greetings again from the darkness. We now have the latest example for those who fall on one side or the other when it comes to documentary vs dramatized biopic. Director Michael Showalter (the excellent THE BIG SICK, 2017) and writer Abe Sylvia have adapted the 2000 documentary from Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato - and even kept the same title. The focus here (obviously) is on Tammy Faye Bakker, as she and her televangelist husband Jim skyrocketed to fame before imploding in a quite public and spectacular fashion. Jim went from world-renowned Christian TV personality to scandal-burdened prison inmate, while Tammy Faye rose up from roots of poverty to beloved personality, before becoming a media and Talk Show punchline caricature.

Regardless of your preferred biopic style, or your memories of the Bakkers' rise and fall, most of us can agree that Jessica Chastain delivers a superb and entertaining performance as Tammy Faye. Already established as one of our finest actors, this is truly a passion project for Ms. Chastain, as she purchased the film rights nearly a decade ago. Here, as you might expect, her features are often buried under prosthetics and mounds of make-up to achieve the oh-so-familiar Tammy Faye look. She captures the babyish voice, the recognizable chuckle, and even sings the songs (very well) that Tammy Faye sang on camera and released albums.

Depending on your expectations, the film serves up a sympathetic view of a true believer with a heart of gold, or it merely skims the surface of a ministry filled with fraud, greed, and deception. And it's likely both. Tammy Faye is a bit of an enigma. As a child, she was forbidden by her mother (Cherry Jones) from attending church, as she served as a reminder of the 'Scarlet D' (divorce) burdening her mother. However, one sip of the sacrament sent young Tammy Faye (Chandler Head) into speaking in tongues and on the road to North Central Bible College where she would meet Jim Bakker.

Andrew Garfield portrays Jim Bakker, and captures the very familiar speech pattern and effeminate mannerisms of the man who proclaimed God did not want poverty for his followers ... a belief that led first to the Bakkers' "The 700 Club" on Pat Robertson's (Gabriel Olds) Christian Broadcasting Network, and ultimately to their own network and "The PTL Club", followed by Heritage USA, a Christian theme park. Along the way, they crossed paths with the powerful, ultra conservative Christian, Jerry Falwell (a reserved Vincent D'Onofrio), a man who was envious of the number of followers and the dollars generated by Jim and Tammy Faye. Falwell filled a significant role in how things played out for the Bakkers, and that part is touched on here.

Showalter opts to open the film with a montage of newscasts reporting the Bakker collapse, followed by Tammy Faye in 1994 commenting on her famous eyelashes by stating, "That's who I am." The rest of the film is a re-telling of the Tammy Faye story, though we are left to ponder, 'How much did she really know?". We see a good-hearted person - a woman brave enough to publicly stand up for the LGBTQ community despite the objections of powerful men in the church. We also see a woman who enjoys fine luxury living and asking few questions, while consistently holding to her message, "God loves you. He really does." Evangelicals, hypocrisy, financial standing, and political influence are all part of the story, but this is no deep dive into what sent Jim Bakker to prison. Even the Jessica Hahn scandal garners but a brief mention. Instead, this is the story of one woman who was trusted by so many prior to becoming a punchline. One could even say Jim and Tammy Faye were the pioneers of Reality TV, and their rise and fall are only unusual due to the ties to Christianity.

In theaters September 17, 2021.

The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain
(2020)

a story to know
Greetings again from the darkness. No one denies law enforcement officers have a tough and demanding and risky job. However, with cell phones putting video cameras in the hands of just about everyone, any poor decision by cops ... and certainly any tragic one... is likely to get recorded and then plastered across all media. Writer-director David Midell delivers a dramatized reenactment of a tragic and inexplicable interaction between one man and a team of frustrated cops whose actions proved deadly.

On November 19, 2011, former Marine Kenneth Chamberlain Sr was asleep in his White Plains, NY apartment. He rolled over and accidentally enacted his LifeAid alert pendant. Since he slept without his hearing aids, Kenneth didn't hear Candace, the LifeAid operator, try to reach him. Following protocol, Candace ordered a welfare check. 90 minutes later, Kenneth lay dead - killed by police after they broke down his front door. The tension during that 90 minutes is nearly unbearable.

Frankie Faison ("Banshee") gives an excellent and gut-wrenching performance as Chamberlain. We 'feel' everything he says. As he talks to the cops through the door, we learn he has a heart condition, as well as a mental health issue (likely bi-polar). His constant pleas of "leave me alone", "I'm fine", the alarm "was an accident", and "you're not coming in" all heighten the sense of impending doom he feels. We feel it too. His experience tells him to expect something to go wrong anytime the police are involved.

The three cops banging on his door are Sergeant Parks (Steve O'Connell), Officer Jackson (Ben Martin), and Officer Rossi (Enrique Natale). Jackson is the racist, hot-headed gum-smacking cop (blond of course) who has judged Chamberlain simply by the demographics of the run-down complex he lives in. Rossi is the empathetic rookie cop who has a feel for the pressure Chamberlain is under, and his attempts at preaching patience are shot down by the more experienced cops. Parks has little time for Rossi's cuddly approach or Jackson's on-edge nature, but he's not appreciative of Chamberlain's refusal to cooperate, and certainly can't relate to his distrust of the badge.

Midell's film has been well received at film festivals the past couple of years, and his 'real time' approach coupled with the performances and the claustrophobic setting (it all takes place in Chamberlain's apartment and the stairwell outside his door) work to give us a feel for the emotions and nervous energy of the situation. Throughout the ordeal, Chamberlain communicates with Candace at LifeAid and his own family on his cell. The opening quote tells us that depending on who you are, the sight of a police officer could mean "safety" or "terror". This film relays the latter, and the actual audio and photos over the closing credits prove this horror film was unbearably true. "This is my home" was not enough for Kenneth Chamberlain. One small quibble: Chamberlain's hearing aids come and go through the film.

In select theaters and VOD on September 17, 2021.

The Nowhere Inn
(2020)

creative satire
Greetings again from the darkness. Have you ever wondered what would happen if David Lynch and Fred Armisen collaborated on a contemporary reimagining of THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984)? Well, me neither, and that has not happened. But it's the closest I can come to giving you some idea of this meta-comedy concept film from director Bill Benz and co-writers and co-stars Carrie Brownstein and St Vincent.

We are told that initially singer-songwriter-musician St Vincent has asked her friend Carrie Brownstein to direct a documentary on the singer and her tour. Brownstein envisions a blend of concert and offstage footage so that fans get to know the "real" St Vincent. It turns out the real St Vincent is Annie Clark, a woman who plays Scrabble and video games, and loves to shop for radishes at local Farmers Markets. The contrast between St Vincent's onstage red guitar riffs, giant video screen, leather outfits and her offstage calm personality is not just stark, but actually a bit boring.

Boring is not what Brownstein has in mind and it creates a rift between the two women, and flips a switch for St Vincent. The musician goes overboard in trying to manufacture the typical rock star image of cool and aloof. Brownstein is frustrated not just with the artificiality of the new approach, but also in the expanding distance between the two friends. Some of the vignettes are quite humorous - in a surreal way. St Vincent stages an intimate scene in her bedroom with a scantily clad Dakota Johnson, and then another sequence features St Vincent's "family" in a scene right out of "Hee-Haw".

The satire on public vs private life is a topic worthy of discussion. Often it's the fans who feel entitled to know more about their icons, while other times it's the celebrities who are trying to cultivate a public image and garner some extra publicity. In this era of social media, the bigger the personality - the more outlandish - the more publicity and the more followers.

Director Benz's film drags a bit in the middle, and the final act turns somewhat surreal as Brownstein and St Vincent both have their lapses from reality. Both seem to be confused about their public persona vs real life, so it begins to mimic what's happened with the original documentary concept. There is a terrific scene involving St Vincent singing on stage and working her way through red velvet stage curtains, but for the most part this isn't a biting satire - it's more like a soft-touch. The "Portlandia" connection is clear throughout (Benz, Brownstein, St Vincent) but I'm not sure the film is cohesive enough (mockumentary? Wry comedy? Satire?) for a mass audience ... it might work best as midnight madness.

In theaters September 17, 2021.

Last Night in Rozzie
(2021)

there's more to that wish
Greetings again from the darkness. Fulfilling the dying wish of a long-ago childhood friend is the basis of this story from screenwriter Ryan McDonough and director Sean Gannet. It's the feature film version of their own 2017 short film with the same title.

Jeremy Sisto (WAITRESS, 2007) stars as Joey Donovan, a crude man just waiting to die in his hospital bed. Out of the blue, he calls his childhood buddy Ronnie Russo (Neil Brown Jr, "SEAL Team"). The two haven't spoken for 25 years, and Ronnie is now an attorney in New York City. He's the one who "got out", while Joey remained in the Roslindale area of Boston, a working class neighborhood. It's an awkward reunion for the two men whose last connection was their Little League team. Joey asks for Ronnie's help in fulfilling his final wish.

We soon learn that Joey is not the most straightforward and truthful of individuals. In fact, he's downright deceitful at times, and director Gannet includes flashbacks to give us some background on why these two turned out the way they did, and what event from so many years ago ties them together. Joey's request forces Ronnie to re-connect with his childhood crush Pattie (Nicky Whelan, HALL PASS, 2011). And of course there's more complexity to the situation than Joey discloses.

The film has been well received at film festivals, but I can't help but think that more attention to the background of the three main characters could have added a bit more heft. Supporting actors include Kevin Chapman as Joey's father, Greyson Cage and Ryan Canale as young Ronnie and Joey, and James DeFilippi as Patti's son, JJ. The film touches on a few interesting topics - childhood friends, split second decisions, regrets and final wishes, as well as the reasons behind lies.

In select theaters and on VOD beginning September 17, 2021.

Saved Rounds
(2019)

dealing with survivor's guilt
Greetings again from the darkness. PTSD plays a factor in many films about military veterans, but this story revolves around 'Survivor's Guilt'. It's particular and personal to Doc Farrow, who stars in the film and co-wrote the story with Deborah Leonhardt, who also co-stars. This 17 minute short film is based on Doc Farrow's own life and is directed by long-time character actor John Finn, who you likely know from the long-running TV series, "Cold Case".

Farrow ("Young Sheldon") stars as Doc, an alcoholic veteran on a road trip with his supportive partner Laurie (Ms. Leonhardt). Doc sees visions of the individual Marines who served under him in Iraq. One of these is Rod (Hector Salas), who Doc not only sees, but also hears his running commentary. We soon realize that Doc is headed to visit with Rod's parents - a visit that doesn't go as he'd hoped.

Doc's guilt is simultaneously understandable and unfathomable to us. He admits his job was to keep his men alive, but dealing with that failure is more than any man can shoulder. Laurie helps as best she can, as her background gives her a distinct perspective that allows her to deal with Doc. The emotions of the situation go beyond the warfare depicted in movies that focus on battle. But the battle doesn't end when the war ends.

The Alpinist
(2021)

on his own terms
Greetings again from the darkness. I nearly opted to pass on this since I assumed it would be similar to watching Alex Honnold climb in Best Documentary Oscar winner FREE SOLO (2018), and that was a visceral viewing experience that should not be messed with. To ease my concerns, the filmmakers Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen interview Honnold early on, and Alex makes it abundantly clear how impressed he is with the solo climbing of Marc-Andre LeClerc, the focus of this film.

The opening sequence is truly breathtaking as we watch LeClerc climb. The filmmakers followed him, or at least attempted to, for the better part of two years. Honnold explains that LeClerc never sought adulation or recognition, and purposefully remained under the radar - a form of purity (and elusiveness). But even climbers have a grapevine, and over time the stories of LeClerc's solo climbs became somewhat legendary.

Two things are well known about free climbing: these folks are a different breed - beating to their own drum, and the risk of death is extraordinary (we see a roster of some who have perished). Somehow LeClerc is even more extreme than this community of extremists. He owned neither a cell phone nor a vehicle. He had no home, and in fact, he and his girlfriend Brette Harrington recounted sleeping in a stairwell (for warmth, not comfort). As kindred spirits, LeClerc and Brette would sometimes climb together, while other times, he would take off on a new adventure.

As elusive and private as he remained, LeClerc's own time on camera endears him to us - whether he's climbing or just talking. For such a young man, his thoughts seem clear and deep. He understands what makes him tick, and his mother admits a 9-to-5 job was never a possibility. LeClerc recalls his hard partying phase, and how climbing helped him recover. The filmmakers panic about halfway through when their star goes AWOL and they struggle to track him down.

The photography is stunning at times, and there are drone shots that capture the spectacle of a lone climber dwarfed by nature. Just when our nerves are frazzled to bits, the ante gets upped with LeClerc displaying his ice climbing ability, and his trip to Patagonia to take on Torre Egger, the most challenging climb in the western Hemisphere. Other climbers provide some insight into the mindset, as well as LeClerc's accomplishments. Brette and LeClerc's mother also provide perspective, and while we may have some comprehension of alpinism and solo climbing, it's Marc-Andre LeClerc's natural habitat, and the only place he could quiet his mind.

In U. S. theaters on September 10, 2021, following a September 7 nationwide Fathom Events premiere, featuring exclusive bonus content (and an interview with directors Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen)

Dating & New York
(2021)

a rom-com for today
Greetings again from the darkness. One must presume that many Millennials in their mid-to-late 20s will recognize and relate to the characters and situations in this indie Romantic Comedy from writer-director Jonah Feingold. For those born prior to 1980, that's likely to be more challenging, and in fact, some of the conversations may more closely resemble a foreign language than familiar human exchanges. We can almost picture the emoji's as these characters speak.

Milo (Jaboukie Young-White) and Wendy (Francesca Reale) are two single New Yorkers who match on the cleverly-named dating app, "Meet Cute". Of course, that's also the cinematic description for most every Rom-Com initial introduction since the days of Howard Hawks, Frank Capra, and Ernst Lubitsch. After a perfect first date-turned one-night stand, Milo and Wendy ghost each other. Three weeks later they have a café meeting where Wendy presents a "Best Friends with Benefits" contract. He wants more, while she just wants this. BFWB is a step beyond FWB since it's more than sex. The two will regularly hang out and offer each other life and relationship advice - but definitely no "I love you" or PDA. Even their friends Hank (Brian Muller) and Jessie (Catherine Cohen) recognize this for the bad idea it is ... but Hank and Jessie are too distracted developing their own bond to care too much.

Feingold utilizes some very cool water colors over the opening credits, and Grant Fonda's score is spot on throughout. There will be comparisons to FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS and NO STRONGS ATTACHED, two movies released in 2011. However, a better and more interesting connection is to see how Feingold was influenced by WHEN HARRY MET SALLY... (1989) and ANNIE HALL (1977), two of the very best romantic comedies. Just keep in mind that this film is for those born in this modern era, where the rules of dating are determined by social media and dating (hook-up) apps. We are told that Millennials are "cursed with choices".

Feingold's characters discover break-up email templates (these people can't subject themselves to face-to-face conflict), the real world expense of wedding planners, the confusing dynamics of haggling over who pays for dinner and drinks, and of course, the importance of guacamole. The characters are believable and seem like folks we could know ... except when they speak. Jerry Ferrara (Turtle in "Entourage") plays doorman Cole and also serves as the film's narrator, a welcome guide through the reasons behind the actions.

Cinematographer Maria Rusche effectively captures the familiar sites of NYC, as well as the food and drink moments that go with dating. Director Feingold comes up short in his cameo, although in a humorous way. The four lead actors are not yet household names, and probably won't be recognized by most viewers - though expect them to be part of the next wave. Mostly Feingold keeps things light and cutesy, and whether intentionally or not, reminds us that social media can be manipulative and controlling. Those pushing 30, especially New Yorkers, will likely enjoy seeing their life on screen, while the rest of us simply wonder how hooking up and hanging out isn't considered a serious relationship.

In select theaters and available on digital beginning September 10, 2021.

The Capote Tapes
(2019)

Swans and Truman
Greetings again from the darkness. The audio tapes of interviews George Plimpton conducted for his 1997 biography, "Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Distractors Recall his Turbulent Career", serve as the foundation for this documentary by Ebs Burnough, once a Senior Advisor to former First Lady, Michelle Obama. As fascinating as the tapes are, it's the archival footage, photographs, and additional on-camera interviews that turn this into a well-rounded profile of the enigmatic Truman Capote.

We hear those who knew him describe Capote as seductive, a freak, sleazy, brilliant, fun, and naughty. He's also the author of two literary classics, "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1958) and "In Cold Blood" (1966). It's the latter which some claim kicked off the celebrity culture (the one that's out of control today), as Capote capitalized on his fame and high society standing to become bigger than the work (insert Norma Desmond line here). Burnough uses the long-standing rumors of Capote's scandalous manuscript, "Answered Prayers" as the structure of his story-telling. For more than 10 years, Capote teased with his anticipated answer to Proust's "In Search of Lost Times". The closest it came to publication was a couple of chapters in Esquire Magazine in 1975. We hear this described as "excerpts of a novel that doesn't exist".

Whether the manuscript exists or not, has little bearing on Burnough's ability to help us understand Capote. Those providing insight include author Jay McInerney ("Bright Lights, Big City, 1984), Capote's long-time partner Jack Dunphy, Pulitzer Prize winning author Norman Mailer (claims Capote "wrote the best sentences"), and Kate Harrington, Capote's adopted daughter (he had a relationship with her father). Ms. Harrington's recollections are quite personal and add a welcome dimension to an otherwise focus on celebrity.

The segment on Capote's 1966 "Black and White" ball at New York's swanky Plaza Hotel is likely the best snapshot of how many remember him. The guest list was truly a who's who among New York high society, intellects, celebrities, and even royalty. By this time, we've learned of Capote's "Swans" - the beautiful and elegant society ladies who constantly escorted him in public. Of course, gay life in those days was quite a bit more challenging, so appearances were crucial.

CAPOTE (2005) with Philip Seymour Hoffman and INFAMOUS (2006) with Toby Jones, stand as the main cinematic depictions of Truman Capote for younger generations. For those of us a bit older, we vividly recall the talk show appearances by this funny little man with the baby voice and effeminate mannerisms. He was an oddity to most of us, in that he looked and sounded quite different, but it was clear he was intelligent and funny. What we didn't know was that drugs, alcohol, and self-absorption were slowly killing him. Capote became a caricature of himself, and by the end in 1984 at age 59 had betrayed many of his friends. Burnough's documentary is all we hoped it would be.

Opens in New York and Los Angeles theaters on September 10, 2021.

Cinderella
(2021)

only Porter brings the magic
Greetings again from the darkness. In keeping with the times, writer-director Kay Cannon (the screenwriter for three PITCH PERFECT movies) has turned the classic and ancient Cinderella tale into an agenda movie, albeit one adorned with new and lively adaptations of popular songs. The earliest versions of the folk tale date back 2000 years, while the most widely-accepted fairy tale version was penned by 17th century French writer Charles Perrault, who also wrote "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Sleeping Beauty". Since then, there have been countless renditions around the globe in various forms: literary, stage, musical theatre, TV, and animated and live action film. As far as I can tell, this is the first feminist take.

Opening with the town folks performing Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation", we are then introduced to Ella (pop singer Camila Cabello in her first movie), who lives in the basement of her stepmother's (Idina Menzel) home. Yes, Ella has two stepsisters, although neither are particularly wicked. In fact, Anastasia (Maddie Baillio) appears almost disinterested, while Drizella (Charlotte Spencer) is at times, downright hilarious (in a Leslie Mann kind of way). Even the stepmother has moments of respectability and decency with Ella.

Ella's only friends are the three mice who also live in the basement. It's here where she hones her talent as a dress designer and dreams of having her own business ("how hard can it be?"). For her, she sees fashion design as not just her way out of the basement, but more importantly, as her road to independence. She doesn't need a man or anyone else, and is skilled in daily affirmations. Hers is less of a 'dream' and more of a goal, despite the challenges of her situation.

Of course this is still a Cinderella story, and Nicholas Galitzine plays Prince Robert, an unfocused young man who lacks the drive to be king and fulfill the ultimate wish of his father, King Rowan (Pierce Brosnan). On the other hand, Robert's sister, Princess Gwen (Tallulah Greive) is both driven and filled with ideas on ways to improve the kingdom. Her father readily dismisses her from matters of importance (men things), while Queen Beatrice (Minnie Driver) initially tries to maintain peace in the family. Knowing that this is a musical, and seeing Pierce Brosnan's name in the credits, might generate nightmarish flashbacks for those who experienced his singing in MAMMA MIA! (2008). While he does tease/threaten us with singing, most of his musical bits are quite tongue-in-cheek.

Bringing a jolt of energy to the story at a time when it's desperately needed is Billy Porter as Ella's non-binary Fabulous Godmother, known as Fab G. Porter's costume and overall flamboyance are a hoot to watch, and oh by the way, he's quite a singer as well. And yes, the three mice turn into coachmen played by James Corden, James Acaster, and Romesh Ranganathan. They do serve up some comic relief, but likely not as much as they or the filmmaker hopes. Surprisingly, the set design and costume design are fairly drab - the two exceptions being Porter and the ball.

In addition to the opening "Rhythm Nation" song, you'll hear a version of Salt-N-Pepa's "What a Man", as well as other familiar tunes. The music and the shift in Ella's approach are the contemporary touches, as the girl-power theme stresses there's no need for a man ... even a Prince. The twist on the Cinderella tale varies from previous versions, the most popular being Kenneth Branagh's 2015 film with Lily James and Cate Blanchett, the 1997 film with Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother, and of course, Walt Disney's 1950 animated classic. Ms. Cannon's version is still a love story; it's just love of one's self and career, rather than the love of another person. A tale perfectly suited to the times.

In select theaters and on Amazon Prime beginning September 3, 2021.

Together
(2021)

pandemic punchiness
Greetings again from the darkness. As expected, we are beginning to see an influx of "pandemic" movies and TV shows. What wasn't expected is the unique and creative approach in this one from Co-directors Stephen Daldry (THE HOURS, 2002) and Justin Martin. The script is from Dennis Kelly and the writing, directing, and acting all work together seamlessly to create quite an unusual viewing experience.

The weight of the movie rests on the outstanding performances from James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan (GAME NIGHT, 2018). They don't simply break the fourth wall, they outright obliterate it. These two characters, whose names we never learn, talk directly to us viewers at least as often as they do to each other. The story begins in March 2020 on the first day of COVID quarantine, and carries through for a full year. As we open, the relationship has admittedly run its course, though as the days go by, circumstances can change things. The two are joined in the house by 10 year old son Artie (Samuel Logan), who spends an inordinate amount of time hovering in the background, hearing the two adults say things he shouldn't hear. They appear to devote very little time to the boy's stress ... although their own feelings are front and center.

It's a bit off-putting at first as we adjust to the couple speaking directly to us. On top of that, the sharing of personal information and the overlapping dialogue of their caustic exchanges meant to hurt, make this feel a bit like we are intruding. But the conversations are so relatable since we've all experienced the uncertainty and frustration wrought by the pandemic. In a short amount of time, we understand these two. He shares the story of his early confrontation with a grocery clerk over his son's food choices, while she explains the guilt associated with an ailing elderly mother during a lockdown. Their "mushroom" story is certainly one for the ages, and again, provides much insight into these two people of distinctly opposite political spectrums.

Daldry and Martin filmed this in just 10 days, and with the entire piece taking place on the lower level of the couple's flat, the film has a definite stage feel - accentuated by the long takes and aura of live performances. The dialogue stands in for action, and Ms. Horgan's explanation of the reality of "exponential growth" in regards to COVID is one of the most stunning math classes you'll attend. This is a case study of personalities and the relationship effects of a pandemic, and it is infused with enough dark comedy to keep it entertaining, rather than depressing. Some similarities exist to the SXSW film THE END OF US, though this one is quite a different viewing experience.

Bleeker Street is releasing TOGETHER in theaters on 8/27/21 and digitally on 9/14/21.

The Lost Leonardo
(2021)

the male Mona Lisa
Greetings again from the darkness. This is an unusual documentary from Andreas Keofoed. The first part examines the attempts to solve the origin mystery of a discovered painting, while the second half takes us inside the mysterious money side of the collectible art world. Both mysteries are fascinating on their own, and they blend together to track the 15 year history of a painting that may have come from the brushes of Leonardo da Vinci more than 600 years ago. Or it may not have.

We first meet Alexander Parish, a self-described "Sleeper Hunter" - one always on the lookout to purchase undervalued artwork. "That's what I do", states Parish. He's the one who found the Salvator Mundi painting at a 2005 New Orleans art auction. He and his partner, Robert Simon, paid $1175 for the painting, though they had no idea what they were getting. Director Keofoed spoils any surprise, by delivering an opening credit graphic that traces the painting's international travels over the next dozen years by itemizing the sales: $1175 in 2005, $83 million in 2013, $127.5 million in 2013, and $450 million in 2017.

Part 1: The Art Game focuses on the examination, investigation, and restoration of the painting. On one hand we have restorer Dianne Modestini meticulously working her magic to discover what she believes is without question, a da Vinci painting. On the other hand we have noted art critic Jerry Salz who is less skeptical and more mocking in his conclusion that not only is it not from da Vinci, it's not even a 'good' painting. A great deal of effort goes into formulating the painting's provenance - the family tree of ownership. This is crucial to the process in establishing whether it belongs with one of the 15 known Leonardo paintings, or perhaps, at best, from the work of his pupils.

Beginning with Part 2: The Art Game, the film shifts focus from the origin of 'The Male Mona Lisa' (as it was dubbed) to its sale and subsequent flip, and the associated investigation by the CIA into possible money laundering. It's at this point where we meet Yves Bouvier and learn of his purchase and flip to Russian Oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev, who is none too happy once he puts the pieces of the transaction together. The use of Freeports by the rich is also discussed. These high-security fortresses allow the owners to avoid taxes by maintaining a state of "in transit". It's also in this section where the role of Christie's auction house comes into play and we learn of the brilliant hype/marketing of 'The Lost da Vinci'.

When spending $450 million on an object, most of us would likely verify the item's authenticity. But then most of us aren't the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Part 3: The Global Game details how the authenticity of the painting might not even matter when the purpose is to move or protect money. A "dark transaction" allows the purchase to remain anonymous, and when the identity is discovered, it's clear that the art world is now about money, not art.

For some purists, the question of authenticity remains for the Salvator Mundi, and restorer Modestini remains haunted by her conclusion. The art of the deal is clearly less about the art and more about the deal. Leonardo da Vinci's legacy is not impacted by this debate, but the impact of the painting on many other folks is undeniable ... and it has served a purpose as an eye-opener and economics lesson for the rest of us.

Opens in select theaters on August 27, 2021.

The Meaning of Hitler
(2020)

propaganda or history or both
Greetings again from the darkness. The Holocaust and Nazi Germany. No subjects are likely even close in regards to the number of documentaries on topic. Yet somehow, there always seems to be more to mine. Co-directors Peppa Epperline and Michael Tucker have based their project on the 1978 book by Sebastian Haffner. The objective is to pull back the curtain on the self-conceit at the center of the cult of Hitler. How did this happen? How has it been repeated? How do we expose this without adding to the fascination of Hitler? It's quite a conundrum, and one not easily navigated.

One of the first points made near the film's beginning is that most agree understanding Hitler is not possible. So by that definition, a cinematic pursuit for meaning is a futile undertaking. But that doesn't stop the filmmakers from trying. On their quest, they interview many experts and travel to various places of interest - museums, historical sites, camps, and even Treblinka.

Hollywood's fascination with Hitler is discussed, including Mel Brooks' THE PRODUCERS (2005) and the "Springtime for Hitler" sequence, Quentin Tarantino's INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009), and the superb DOWNFALL (2004). An excellent point is made in regards to the film comparisons of how Hitler's suicide is typically portrayed behind closed doors, while Holocaust victims are not afforded such dignity. There is even a segment on Leni Riefenstahl's documentary on the Nazi way, TRIUMPH OF THE WILL (1935). Novelist Francine Prose labels the work, "kitsch".

Infamous Holocaust denier David Irving is featured, and we hear him describe Auschwitz as "not important". The technological advances in microphones are explained in regards to how the "Hitler bottle" allowed him to be more demonstrative during speeches, often resulting in working the audience into a frenzy. Interviews are included throughout the film, and feature historians (Saul Friedlander), authors, deniers, psychologists, and even Nazi hunters.

"Fascinating Fascism" is examined as pageantry and spectacle and other enticing aspects. The theatrical presentation that led to this fetish might today be termed marketing. It's a bit of a relief to see the filmmakers avoided focusing too much on the parallels to a particular modern day phenomenon, despite the timing being right to study similarities. They do, however, make the comparison to Beatlemania, and how history has a tendency to repeat itself in various forms.

The film bounces around some, with certain segments more insightful than others, and there are some astounding points made. One of those interviewed states, "The Nazi ideals were acted out by people who were absolutely normal." It's a frightening thought. Another discusses the human conflict: humans are animals that kill, as well as being herd animals. The Nazi mission played into both. What the film left me with was the belief that the Nazi propaganda has been repurposed as history, leading to the fascination, whereas the focus of that era should be something else.

The Outsider
(2021)

we did it (not) my way
Greetings again from the darkness. September 11, 2001 was "a blue sky day" in New York City. Until it wasn't. Co-directors Pamela Yoder and Steven Rosenbaum previously collaborated on 7 DAYS IN SEPTEMBER (2002), a documentary focusing on how the tragic events of that day impacted the lives of various folks. Their work on that film led the filmmakers directly to this project which examines the seven year process of opening the National 9/11 Museum at Ground Level. The result is as much a case study in personality clashes as it is a recording of artifacts.

Yes, we do see some of the archival video footage that deep down we always hope to never see again. The towers collapse, the air is clouded, and people are panicked. Soon after the attack, Michael Shulan converts his Soho storefront space into a crowd-sourced photo exhibit called "Here is New York. He invited people to bring their own photos for display. Shulan had instinctively created a shared space where people would come to pay tribute to lives lost and remember the day that should not be forgotten. A few years later, something strange happened ... Michael Shulan was named Creative Director of the museum that was in the early planning stages.

Shulan's vision conflicted at times with Museum Director Alice Greenwald's vision. "What should the museum be?" Ms. Greenwald had run the Holocaust Museum in NYC, and had a definite idea of what this should be, while Shulan had zero museum experience and wondered if they were creating a memorial or a museum. He wanted to provoke questions, while she wanted to provide answers. A $500 million budget was at stake, and they couldn't even agree on the approach.

We get a countdown to the museum's opening, and even hear from the Construction Manager as work proceeds. 'The Last Column' provides for an interesting segment, and we see the flood that affected many of the collected artifacts. Michael Bloomberg's influence is noted, and we see the 'composite' - the compacted floors on display. The documentary does focus on emotions, but it's not the emotions we typically associate with 9/11. Instead, it's Shulan's disappointment and frustration. The film touches on the criticism received from the family in regards to the high ticket costs and souvenir shops, and it's the posted quote that sticks with us: "No day shall erase you from the memory of time." Available now on VOD.

Flag Day
(2021)

just not a good dude
Greetings again from the darkness. Life is full of choices, however sometimes destiny takes charge and there's little we can do about it. One's parents are the most obvious and crucial example. We don't choose our parents and yet their impact on our lives is unavoidable. Jennifer Vogel's book, "Flim-Flam Man: The True Story of My Father's Counterfeit Life", has been adapted for the screen by the FORD V FERRARI screenwriting brothers, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth. The film is directed by two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn, who also co-stars.

Told through the eyes of Jennifer (played here by Sean Penn's daughter Dylan Penn, a lookalike of her mother Robin Wright), this is the "based on a true story" of John Vogel, but also the story of Jennifer, who managed to overcome challenges that stemmed from her far-from-ideal childhood. Jennifer's mother Patty (Katheryn Winnick, "Vikings") is an alcoholic and has a tumultuous marriage to John, a con man who constantly spews bombast and fabrications (aka lies) as he tries to scam the system and impress his family with his big plans (that go nowhere).

Since the film opens with a law enforcement standoff, and with Jennifer being interviewed by a Federal Marshal (Oscar winner Regina King), we know how John's saga concludes, and most of the movie is spent in Jennifer's memories to paint the picture of her dad and her life. Some of these are "flashes" of moments, while others are extended segments where we really get a feel for the father that cluttered a daughter's mind and life. It's tough to watch 105 minutes of a guy with little redeeming value.

This is not the place to detail what we see, but it's at times disturbing to see the memories of a father who doesn't so much slip in and out of the lives of Jennifer, younger brother Nick (played by Sean's son Hopper Jack Penn), and mom Patty, as he appears and vanishes in proverbial explosions akin to the Wicked Witch of the West. Given that her mom is equally inept at parenting, high school Jennifer seems destined to follow in her father's footsteps.

Covering a period from 1975 through 1992, we see Jennifer as a young kid, and then Ms. Penn takes over the role in high school. She is also our narrator, some of which is overwrought for a film that mostly strives to stay grounded in family dynamics, as Jennifer works to overcome. In addition to the previously mentioned appearance by Ms. King, there are also brief yet effective turns by Josh Brolin (as John's brother Uncle Beck), Dale Dickey (as John's crusty mother), Norbert Leo Butz (as Patty's sleazy boyfriend), and Eddie Marsan (near the film's end).

In addition to overuse of voiceover, director Penn includes a few too many song/musical interludes. Some of these songs are excellent (Cat Power, Eddie Vedder, Glen Hansard), but they feel a bit heavy-handed and forced into the film. In fact, melodrama is chosen over nuance on multiple occasions, but when the film is good, it's very good. The best scenes are between father and daughter, Sean and Dylan, the latter of which shows flashes of incredible depth. We look forward to more of her work. As for Sean, can you name another actor whose natural look better exemplifies a guy who has had the snot kicked out of him by life (even if he's made his own bed)? He portrays John Vogel as a con man who believes achieving the American Dream is something he's owed, not something to earn. His love of Chopin is not enough to excuse his horrific parenting, scamming, or felonious behavior. There are various forms of freedom, and Jennifer must discover freedom from someone who has prevented you from being her true self.

Opens in select theaters on August 20, 2021.

Crime Story
(2021)

grey revenge
Greetings again from the darkness. Thanks to (or maybe because of) Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and Liam Neeson, we are rarely without a senior citizen action film. However, it's a bit surprising for most of us to see Oscar winner Richard Dreyfuss (THE GOODBYE GIRL, 1977) load up his gun and take to the streets for revenge. Writer-director Adam Lipsius scored a double Oscar coup by also casting Mira Sorvino (MIGHTY APHRODITE, 1995) as Dreyfuss' detective-daughter.

"Based on actual events", Mr. Lipsius bookends the film with the elderly Ben Myers (Dreyfuss) riding in the back of a limousine. He's barely coherent, but in the opening we can make out, "If I wake up, I'll choose different." We then flashback 12 hours to re-live what is likely Ben Myers' worst day ever. He's been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and though he's a former mobster, he says he went "legit" 12 years ago, and runs a local bar with his loyal-to-a-fault sidekick Tommy (the always interesting Pruitt Taylor Vince). Ben's estranged daughter (Sorvino) hits him up for money she says is for the daughter and grandkids that Ben has never acknowledged. Next thing we know, Ben's house has been robbed of all his cash (a quite substantial amount) and trashed by 3 men who take advantage of Ben's beloved dementia-stricken wife Nan (Megan McFarland).

This kicks off Ben's mission of revenge. Gun by Glock, body by Devito. His daughter is concerned he's taking this on by himself, and there is the added complication of her working for a politician that Ben once helped out of what would have been a career-ending jam. In fact, there are so many sub-plots, sub-sub-plots and characters who come and go, that much of this makes little sense. It works best when focusing on an aging (former) mobster trying to even the score, and gets a bit shaky when it reverts to dysfunctional family stuff. I believe there are five crying scenes, which is entirely too many for any movie not named SOPHIE'S CHOICE.

For those of us who recall Dreyfuss from his early TV days, a brief appearance in THE GRADUATE (1967), and of course in AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973) and JAWS (1975), there is some enjoyment to be had in watching 'Mr. Holland' take a violent approach to revenge ... though he's certainly no AARP reincarnation of John Wick. Overall, it's a pretty generic take on geriatric anger, with bonus points for a spot on description of what it feels like when one's spouse succumbs to dementia.

Arrives August 13, 2021 in select theaters, On Demand, and on Digital.

Not Going Quietly
(2021)

a man to follow
Greetings again from the darkness. Nicholas Bruckman provides an intimate profile of a fascinating man, Ady Barkan, a brilliant and relentless advocate for health care rights. Barkan's ALS diagnosis and commitment to cause is interesting enough to carry the film, but by following Barkan, the film serves a dual purpose of educating us on activism and political maneuverings.

Bruckman bookends his film with Ady's testimony to a congressional committee on healthcare. He's in a wheelchair and speaking through an eye-controlled speech machine, similar to the one we saw Stephen Hawking use for many years. We then flashback 3 years to meet Ady's wife - his college sweetheart Rachael - at their home in Santa Barbara, California. As an attorney and activist, we get to know Ady as a man who cares deeply and is committed to fighting injustice. He's especially keyed in on healthcare and social issues.

At only 32 years of age, Ady is diagnosed with ALS. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis is commonly referred to as "Lou Gehrig's Disease". He explains that there is "no cure, and very little treatment", and that the doctors tell him he has three to four years to live. Ady explains that "dying is bad", but dealing with the insurance company is even worse. The ventilator prescribed by is doctor is deemed "experimental" by the insurance company, meaning it's not covered. So what would any good activist do? Well Ady, turns his own experience into a crusade. He founds the #BeAHero campaign with Liz Jaff, a social media strategist. She films Ady's interactions and confrontations with politicians, and they put together a 40 day, 30 congressional district road trip in a specially equipped RV. Their team also includes Tracey, who leads the role-playing on birddogging politicians, and Ady's friend Nate, who assists him with the physical challenges. Their goal is to flip the House in the 2018 election.

Ady Barkan is a funny, intelligent, informed, opinionated, and impassioned man. He knows how to speak to an audience, as well as to politicians who don't share his commitment to healthcare rights, including coverage for pre-existing conditions. On the trip, Ady's health and condition deteriorate before our eyes. It's frightening to watch, knowing how quickly his body begins to fail. But his spirit and his team are relentless, and when circumstances force the dialogue and cause to shift, there is no hesitation.

Bruckman avoids turning Ady into a one-dimension savior. We get to see him with his precocious young son Carl, who was born one year after Ady's diagnosis. Rachael probably doesn't get the screen time she deserves as working mother and caregiver, but it's clear this family has chosen to live every minute they have, and even plunge into the future with optimism. Ady notes how losing his voice is worse for him than paralysis, but his eyes light up when he's with his family. We aren't sure which aspect of Ady is most inspirational, but it's obvious that he's a special man. This was an Audience Award winner at SXSW, and deservedly so.

In theaters August 13, 2021.

CODA
(2021)

dream a little dream
Greetings again from the darkness. Ruby Rossi is a high school student. She is also a CODA - Child of Deaf Adults. Her older brother is deaf too, meaning Ruby's life has been spent as an interpreter for her family, while also working on the family fishing boat in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where they are treated as outcasts and viewed as oddities by others. Ruby also loves to sing and listen to music, activities she can't share with her family. This is no coming-of-age tale, as Ruby has long been wise beyond her years. It is, however, a story of a young person finding their true self and breaking from the ties that bind to the only life she's known.

Emilia Jones (HIGH-RISE, 2015) stars as Ruby, and we first see her slinging fish on the boat with her father Frank (Troy Kutsor) and brother Leo (newcomer Daniel Durant). Ruby belts out songs while the two men handle their duties, unaware of the lovely melodies filling the air. At home, the dinner table conversation is handled through ASL (American Sign Language) with mom/wife Jackie (Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD, 1986) leading the way.

At school, Ruby is an outcast due to her clothes, the lingering aroma of fish, and her "weird" family. With a silent crush on Miles (Ferdio Walsh-Peelo from the excellent SING STREET, 2016), Ruby signs up for choir, but freezes during the audition. The choir director, Bernardo (roll the r's) Villalobos, is played energetically and colorfully by Eugenio Derbez (OVERBOARD, 2018), and he offers encouragement to Ruby - mostly because she has a beautiful singing voice. Bernardo explains how her singing voice offers a path to college, something she's never before considered due to family responsibilities.

There is a lot going on in this film from writer-director Sian Heder (TALLULAH, 2016). It's obviously adapted from the 2014 French film LA FAMILLE BELIER, and plays as a mainstream crowd-pleaser, when it just as easily could have been a deep cut indie film. Ms. Heder's approach means a larger viewing audience, though there are elements we wish had been further explored. The teen romance never really clicks, and there are hints that Bernardo's story holds more levels than we get. However, the Rossi family dynamics are quite something to behold. Father Frank wears his emotions on his sleeve. Sometimes those emotions are angry and bitter, while other times quite comical or even horny (for his wife). Brother Leo wants desperately to lead the family business towards prosperity. He has ideas for growth, but is frustrated being dependent on Ruby as a conduit to the community.

Mother Jackie and Ruby have a typical mother-teenage daughter relationship. The mother wants status quo where the daughter remains an integral part of the family, while the daughter wants her mom to acknowledge the dreams for a different life - one that capitalizes on her talents. When Jackie questions her daughter on her singing, she does so in the most hurtful way possible (brilliant writing). And yet, when mom recounts Ruby's birth, the love is as clear as the disconnect ... and likely to draw a tear or two. Filmmaker Hader serves up numerous strong scenes, but two really stood out for this viewer. First, when Ruby is singing on stage, we "hear" what the parents hear, and their pride is obvious. The second occurs when dad asks Ruby to sing for him as they are perched on the backend of the car. It's phenomenal acting by Kutsor, and further clarifies a lifelong father-daughter bond ... and the first time he fully comprehends her talent. All four leads give strong performances, and it's a star-making performance from Ms. Jones (think a young Saoirse Ronan).

Apple paid a record-breaking $25 million for the film's rights at Sundance, and the mainstream appeal of this family drama sprinkled with comedy and life messages is indisputable. So while my preference would have been more focus on the 'outsider' aspect of the Rossi family in the community, it's easy to see why this choice was made. It's an entertaining film that will likely land on many year-end "Best" lists. Maybe even mine.

Streaming on AppleTV+ on August 13, 2021.

John and the Hole
(2021)

growing up
Oak Cliff Film Festival 2021 Greetings again from the darkness. Why would anyone be surprised that the actions of a teenager make no logical sense? Thirteen year old John (an excellent Charlie Shotwell, CAPTAIN FANTASTIC, 2014) comes across as a shy kid, and a curious one as well. He's a talented tennis player, enjoys going head-to-head in video games with his online friend, and even plays piano. Despite his upper class family life, we sense there is something a bit off about John - although his busy parents are supportive and his banter with his older sister is pretty normal. But his emotionless demeanor sends our mind to dark, uncertain places ... places we hope John doesn't go, although we kind of expect him to.

This is the first feature film directed by Pascual Sisto, and the script comes from Oscar winner Nicolas Giacobone (BIRDMAN, 2014). You should know it's not the typical narrative arc. One day John, with the help of his shiny new drone, locates a long-forgotten unfinished bunker in the nearby woods. The next thing we know, John has drugged his family and dumped them in that hole. That's not a spoiler, as it's shown in the trailer. When Mom (Jennifer Ehle, SAINT MAUD, 2020), Dad (Michael C Hall, "Dexter"), and sis (Taissa Farmiga, "American Horror Story") awaken in the mucky pit, they are frightened and confused. When John appears to deliver food and blankets, he offers nothing in the way of an explanation.

As movie watchers, we have been conditioned to expect this type of situation will lead to significant violence. Instead, we watch as John steps into his newfound freedom. His image of adulting is what he's observed from his parents: classical music, wine, cooking, milking the ATM, and driving the car. He has bypassed the coming-of-age stage, passed "go", and moved directly into his version of adulthood. We know this can't end well, but John is thirteen and isn't mature enough, regardless of this manufactured freedom, to plan ahead.

This is a wealthy family living in a glass house ... an unmistakable metaphor. A sense of entitlement and pursuit of money has distracted the parents from focusing on the importance of teenage years. Whether they realize this looking up at him from the bunker is debatable. John's story is told by a mother to her daughter, an unusual sequence that acts as an awkward framing device. Cinematographer Paul Ozgur delivers terrific camera work with the house, the bunker in the woods, and John's odd demeanor. This is an unsettling film that is more psychological drama than thriller or character study. It clearly borrows from two masters, Michael Haneke and Yorgos Lanthimos, but falls short of their best work (as you'd expect). Still, the film has a certain style, and reminds us that the moral to the story of a teenager's actions often boils down to "don't do that".

Opens in select theaters and On Demand August 6, 2021.

Annette
(2021)

Carax and Sparks fly
Greetings again from the darkness. The anticipation of seeing a film directed by Leos Carax (HOLY MOTORS, 2012), and written and scored by Ron Mael and Russell Mael of Sparks fame, is derived from expecting the unexpected ... experiencing something we've never before experienced cinematically. And although the film is likely to be quite divisive - beloved by some, dismissed by others, confusing for all - the ingenuity, creativity, and risk-taking are quite something to behold. As for the narrative coherence? Well that's quite a different topic.

A mere six weeks ago I watched and reviewed Edgar Wright's excellent documentary THE SPARKS BROTHERS, where Ron and Russell discussed their affinity and vision for movies, despite a few near misses over the years. This particular material was originally conceived as a rock opera album, and it's probable that very few directors would even attempt the transition to the big screen. It would be equally challenging as an opera, a play, or a stage musical. In simple terms, this is a musical-drama-romance; however in reality, it's confoundingly difficult to define or describe.

The opening sequence begins in a recording studio with director Carax at the sound board as the Sparks band performs "So May We Start?" Soon they are marching the streets of Santa Monica, joined in singing the song by the lead actors of the movie we are about to watch. The narrator tells us, "Breathing will not be tolerated", which takes on a touch of irony during a pandemic.

Adam Driver stars as Henry, an offbeat stand-up comedian, and Oscar winner Marion Cotillard stars as Ann, a popular opera singer. Henry bills himself as 'The Ape of God' and performs an abrasive comedy act that is interactive with his audience. He psyches up for each performance by shadow-boxing in a robe while puffing on a cigarette. Ann is often shown alone on stage (Catherine Trottman sings the opera parts, while Ms. Cotillard sings the rest). The couple is engaged when we open, and they later marry, have a child (the titular Annette), and take different approaches to their career. Henry and Ann are polar opposites and that's best exemplified by how they end their respective shows: he 'moons' his audience, while she gracefully bows in appreciation.

Henry is a man filled with love, yet clueless on how to love. He's a tortured soul - the kind that doesn't believe he deserves the life he has and finds a way to self-destruct. Henry and Ann are passionate lovers and their duet "We Love Each Other So Much" has the most unusual timing that you'll see in a musical; in fact, the musical interludes (with repeating lyrics) often arise at the most inopportune (or at least unexpected) moments. Ms. Cotillard's talents are never fully utilized, while much of the film's weight is carried by Mr. Driver.

After tragedy strikes, the story becomes quite bizarre with Henry and "Baby Annette". To say more would spoil that which should remain surprising. Simon Helberg's role as conductor increases in the second half, and his character's past with Ann lends itself to the complexity of relationships. This is a dark love story, and one that befuddles right up to the end. Director Carax and the Mael brothers could slide into the Avant-garde corner, but that might scare off even more potential viewers, so let's use 'fantastical' instead. Sometimes it tries a bit too hard to shock or agitate, and the stories are a bit discordant, but it's all for a good cause: provocation. The film, dedicated to Carax's daughter Nastya (who appears in the opening sequence), sometimes feels like the wild nightmares that you (mostly) don't want to end. And that's about all that should be said to preserve the experience.

This Musical opens in theaters on August 6, 2021 and on Amazon Prime Video on August 20, 2021.

Nine Days
(2020)

what's your approach to life?
Greetings again from the darkness. The meaning of Life is an ambitious topic to tackle for any filmmaker, but certainly as a first feature film. Japanese-Brazilian writer-director Edson Oda not only doesn't shy away from existential questions, he has found a creative way of exploring these, leaving us with plenty to discuss after viewing. His approach is often bleak and slow-moving, yet his film excels in pushing us to examine our own attitude and appreciation for the gift of life.

Winston Duke (US, 2019) stars as Will, a kind of guardian angel charged with selecting the replacement souls after deaths occur on his watch. Will has a wall of old-style tube TVs, each with its own VCR wired up. He spends his time watching folks go about their lives. He takes notes and maintains files. See, those he watches are the ones Will previously selected for life. He picks his team, but he no longer plays the game (although he was once alive). His job now is to tweak humanity in the right direction by selecting "good" souls who are tough enough to handle life - not overly sensitive types, and certainly not those too self-centered.

There is no denying Oda's film is high-concept, and some may outright dismiss his premise. What if pre-life was a competition to determine worthiness? Will sets up nine days of interviews for the next round of souls. Of course, some won't last the full nine days, but the process involves a series of quizzes as the candidates watch the wall of TVs and offer up their answers to Will's questions. Well, all but one, that is. Emma (Zazie Beetz, JOKER, 2019) is a free-spirited soul who sees Will for what he is and what he was. She answers his questions with her own questions, or simply states that she can't answer. He is intrigued and frustrated by her willingness to play this out in her own way.

Tony Hale ("Veep") and Bill Skarsgard (IT, 2017) are a couple of the other candidates, and each has their moments to shine. Benedict Wong (DOCTOR STRANGE, 2015) plays Kyo, Will's co-worker and the one who assists him with the interview process. Kyo also strives to make sure Will maintains some humanity, despite a recent event that shook him to his core, and now has Will second-guessing himself. As Emma slowly gets Will to open up about his 'alive' time, we also see how Will recreates a special moment for the candidates as they are dismissed ... providing them with a taste of life.

A 'taste of life' is fitting because the point Oda is trying to make is that the best parts of life are emotions and sensations - the intangibles that bring joy, fear, and sadness. It's not all cupcakes and unicorns, and being so tough to block out the senses is not the best way of living. Without him realizing, Emma helps Will re-connect with his inner-being of when he was alive. His re-awakening is a highlight.

The candidates are informed that, if chosen, their memories will be wiped clean, yet "you'll still be you". This conforms to the theory that much of who we are is inherent at birth. Again, some may disagree. Oda's film will inspire thought and debate. If each of us aced our pre-life interviews, let's make the most of it! This is a terrific film with a unique look and style, and a standout performance from Winston Duke. We can only hope enough folks take the time to watch and think about the message.

Naked Singularity
(2021)

the dreamers
Greetings again from the darkness. After co-writing the screenplay (adapted from the Stephen King book) for the box office horror hit IT (2017), Chase Palmer gets his first opportunity to direct a feature film. He also co-wrote this screenplay with David Matthews, as the two have adapted the 2008 novel "A Naked Singularity" by Sergio De La Pava. Think of it as a meaning-of-life science fiction comedy drama heist film that critiques the justice system. You know what they say about trying to be all things to all people. But it does get bonus points for trying hard!

John Boyega (Finn in the STAR WARS movies) stars as Casi, a Public Defender who is exasperated with the NYC criminal court system. Casi is overworked and underpaid, and his heart of gold and frumpy suit matter little in his courtroom clashes with Judge Cymbeline (Linda Lavin, "Alice"), who thrives on antagonizing and baiting the young attorney. Casi's early idealism has faded and now he's just fed up, looking for a way out. The talented Olivia Cooke (SOUND OF METAL, 2020) co-stars as Lea, a bored clerk at a city impound lot. Lea is a previous client of Casi's and they cross paths again when his lawyer friend Dane (Bill Skarsgard, Pennywise in IT) passes along a file for her latest case.

There are basically three stories going on here: First, Casi is (unsuccessfully) fighting the bias in the halls of justice. Second, there is a weird glitch in the matrix, referred to as a "ripple" by Casi's stoner friend Angus (Tim Blake Nelson), who works out physics problems on the wall of his apartment. And third, there is a botched drug deal featuring creepy hoodlum Craig (Ed Skrein, DEADPOOL, 2016), who has dragged Lea right into his web of crime. Of course, Lea already had a criminal record, and she's frustrated that the system penalizes her for the past ... leaving her with lousy options for employment. She's too is looking for a way out.

As the film begins, director Palmer includes a quote from Candide: "If this is the best possible world, what then are the others?" This goes directly to the dreamers - those who imagine escaping their situation, and those who imagine making it better. Act 3 becomes a heist film, but we miss out on the fun part, as the planning just seems to happen. When the big day arrives, some things go right, and some things go wrong. Mostly, it's an unrealistic chain of events that involves every character listed above, plus The Golem (Kyle Mooney) as the leader of the drug-dealing Hasidic Jews, a couple of NYC Detectives, and a Mexican cartel boss, who raises eyebrows outbidding Craig for the Navigator where the drugs are stashed. It seems fairly likely that Lincoln contributed to the film's production since "Navigator" is mentioned numerous times.

Director Palmer utilizes a countdown to the big event ... assuming the "ripple" wouldn't be considered a bigger event ... and that provides the odd pacing for the film. Also odd is the inclusion of a Popeye Doyle reference, when it's quite unlikely that these characters would be familiar with THE FRENCH CONNECTION. Additionally, it's the unnatural dialogue and the wedged-in social commentary that come across as misplaced. Comparing being poor to slavery in a five second scene makes it appear the goal was to fit in as many social issues as possible within a 90 minute run time. Sometimes weird is interesting. Sometimes it's just weird. Sometimes it's just kind of meh.

Screen Media will release NAKED SINGULARITY in select theaters on August 6th as well as opening wide and on demand August 13th, 2021.

Infinitum: Subject Unknown
(2021)

can I get a Wytness
Greetings again from the darkness. In 2015, director Sean Baker's use of an iPhone to film TANGERINE was viewed as experimental or rogue. Since then, other filmmakers have utilized this method, though it's only been during the pandemic when filmmakers, desperate to create, have used the iPhone out of necessity. Such is the case with Matthew Butler-Hart, who not only utilized the mobile device for the majority of scenes, but also directed a couple of cameos remotely via Zoom. Co-written with his wife Tori Butler-Hart, who also stars, the film takes full advantage of empty streets and the absence of other people during the lockdown.

Ms. Butler-Hart stars as Jane, whom we first see as she awakens alone in the attic of a house. She's gagged and bound to a chair, with no recollection of how she got there. She also experiences visions in flashes - some type of memories - as she looks for an escape route. She notices that she's under surveillance, but after her initial stage of fright, she becomes quite determined to free herself. And that's where things get really interesting. In the mode of GROUNDHOG DAY (1993) or HAPPY DEATH DAY (2017), only without Sonny and Cher music or a homicide, Jane is constantly re-awakening to find herself back in the same attic, in the same chair, with the same constraints.

Sir Ian McKellan plays the founder of Wytness Research Centre and Conleth Hill ("Game of Thrones") plays a scientist. These two talking heads (filmed via Zoom) serve up the Quantum science overview that provides the structure of Jane's situation, and also offer a couple of short breaks for Jane, who appears in nearly every other scene. The Wytness Centre holds the key to her situation, and we are informed that the work there is "propelling human evolution to a staggering new dimension." Jane stays focused on solving the puzzle that will allow her to escape the house (mysterious staircase and all) and track down what is causing her to experience these events time and time again. There is a video game feel to this as Jane frantically tries to reach the next level of escape, only to be zapped back to the starting point with each failure. Although time is relative and a parallel universe is in play here, we can't help but notice Jane seems to lack the food, water, and basic hygiene one would require. That point has little impact on the creativity of the story and situation. Rorschach tests appear in certain places, as does a mint condition VW van. What we don't see are people, though Quantum science does hold infinite possibilities.

Ms. Butler-Hart delivers a strong performance and keeps us interested in her character as she carries the film. Mr. Butler-Hart delivers excellent "camera" work, and the ultra-low budget film shows what can be accomplished. The lockdown has caused isolation and uncertainty for many, and mind games can certainly affect one's perspective. The Butler-Harts have plans to convert this little film to a graphic novel and TV series, and it appears the "time" is right for both.

Coming to Theaters and VOD on August 6, 2021.

Old
(2021)

M Knight keeps swinging
Greetings again from the darkness. THE SIXTH SENSE (1999) and UNBREAKABLE (2000) created a movie bond with filmmaker M Night Shyamalan that will always exist. In other words, I continue to go into each of his projects with hopeful expectations of another classic. Of course, some have been pretty good (SPLIT, 2016), while others are barely watchable (THE LAST AIRBENDER, 2010). His latest lands somewhere in the middle, but does feature a stunning beach setting (Dominican Republic) - one whose tropical beauty hides a sinister reality.

The film's synopsis is captured in the trailer: tourists experience a mystifying and terrifying phenomenon while on a day trip to a gorgeous secluded beach. The director adapted the film from the 2010 graphic novel "Sandcastle", written by Pierre-Oscar Levy and Frederick Peeters. Shyamalan specializes in one thing: big and creative ideas. He is a risk-taking filmmaker, but one not always focused on execution, coherence, or details. Especially awkward here is the dialogue. None of these characters talk like real people. Lending to the awkwardness is the attention given to each character's name and occupation ... except for the kids, where age is the significant data.

Due to the nature of the story (and the effects of the beach), the cast is significantly larger than the number of characters. We ride along with one family as they first approach the luxury resort. Insurance actuary Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his wife, museum curator Prisca (Vicky Krieps) are vacationing with their 11 year old daughter Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and 6 year old son Trent (Nolan River). The couple clearly have a strained relationship and appear headed for a break-up. Encouraged by the resort manager to spend the day at a secret remote beach, they are joined by Charles (Rufus Sewell), a surgeon, his calcium-deficient trophy wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee), their young daughter Kara, and the doctor's elderly mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant). Another couple is there as well, nurse Jarin (Ken Leung) and his wife Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a psychologist. Already at the beach when they arrive is rap star Mid-sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre), replete with bloody nose and the corpse of the woman who accompanied him.

It's best not to go into specifics about the progression of things for these folks on the beach, but it can be noted that they frantically try to find a way back to the resort. When all attempts prove unsuccessful, that ridiculous dialogue fills in many of the gaps for us, though you should know the science doesn't hold up ... think of it as fantasy instead. As their day at the beach moves forward, other actors take over: Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie are teenage Trent and Maddox, Eliza Scanlen is Kara, and later, Emun Elliott and Embeth Davidtz become Trent and Maddox. It becomes frustrating for viewers as the professions are emphasized: Guy spouts statistics at every turn, Prisca discloses she's not a pathologist, and Patricia attempts to get everyone to bring their feelings to group. Ugh.

Despite the many missteps and the overall mess of characterizations, Shyamalan (who also appears as the driver who drops them at the beach) does serve up a creative idea - one that will likely get viewers questioning their own mortality. Mental illness is addressed in a crude manner with Rufus Sewell (a fine actor) bearing the brunt of a poor script, while physical afflictions and the effects of age come off a bit better. The strange looking woman serving up custom cocktails at the resort is Francesca Eastwood (Clint's daughter), and Shyamalan's patented plot twist ending does make sense and even has a contemporary feel to it.

Stillwater
(2021)

oklahoma fish out of water
Greetings again from the darkness. It's understandable if you are taken in by a trailer that hints at a movie featuring an unknown dad going non-stop in cold pursuit of justice for his daughter (those numerous Liam Neeson references were for my own pleasure). In fact, this father has his own particular set of skills: he's a master at carpentry and electrical, he speaks the Oklahoma version of English, and he owns two guns (neither of which he has with him). And yes, this film is billed as a crime thriller, but you should know, we see very little crime, and the thrills are mostly non-existent. Despite all that, I connected with the story, not as a thriller, but rather as a character study of a flawed man trying to do the right thing by his daughter and find redemption for himself.

Oscar winner Matt Damon plays Bill Baker, a quiet out of work oil worker whom we first see on a clean-up crew after a disastrous tornado. Not long after, he's on an international flight to Marseille to visit his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin). She's been incarcerated for five years after being found guilty of stabbing her French-Arab lover, Lina, to death. In a highly publicized trial, Allison held fast to her claim of innocence, and still does. Her father visits regularly, delivering supplies and clean laundry. Although they hug on the visits, a definite chasm exists. We later learn that Bill previously struggled with drugs and alcohol and never received votes for Father of the Year. Allison asks her father to deliver a sealed letter to her attorney claiming there is new evidence in her case - she heard a guy named Akim had bragged at a party about committing Lina's murder.

You likely noticed the similarities to the 2007 Amanda Knox case. The differences being that was Italy, this is France; and it was Amanda's roommate, not lover. In this movie, the media fascination is derived from the 'rich' entitled American white girl brutally murdering her minority working class lesbian lover (a textbook Hollywood rendering). Allison growing up poor in Oklahoma mattered little to the media.

Damon plays Bill as a stoic, Heartland of America man who'll do anything for "his little girl". But he's no Jason Bourne. He's the proverbial fish-out-of-water on this mission. He doesn't speak a bit of French, and depends on the kindness of local actress Virginie (Camille Cottin, ALLIED, 2016) to be his interpreter and cultural guide in a world he doesn't comprehend. Bill quickly bonds with Virginie's precocious daughter Maya (a sterling film debut by Lilou Siauvaud), and soon a platonic family unit has formed. Bill's frequent prayers and odd American manners are the perfect cultural clash with Virginie's artsy French ways. Of course, this ultimately leads to a shift in the platonic nature of their relationship.

The film is directed by Tom McCarthy, an Oscar winner for SPOTLIGHT (2015). I highly recommend two of his other films, the excellent THE VISITOR (2007), and his sinfully under-seen directorial debut THE STATION AGENT (2003). McCarthy co-wrote this script with Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, and Noe Debre, which explains why the French details are so spot on. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi delivers brilliant camera work to go with the story's methodical pacing, and Mychael Danna's music adds intensity and depth to situations both quiet and fraught with emotion. Damon does some of his best work here as a man burdened with his own past and slowly becoming aware of possible personal and family life redemption. Ms. Breslin burst on the scene in 2006 with LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, and she has transitioned well to adult roles ... though this role is somewhat abbreviated, she still does nice work in her scene with Maya and Virginie.

Bill and Virginie and Maya have some terrific segments together, including a dance to Sammi Smith's "Help Me Make it Through the Night". I'm guessing the rousing applause the film and actors received at Cannes was due partly to its French setting, and also to the depth of Bill's character (and Damon's performance). There are elements that seem far-fetched and maybe even overly complex, but viewed as the story of one man, it delivers some thought-provoking topics to the big screen. And yes, "life is brutal".

Opens in Theaters Friday, July 30.

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