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The Secret Garden
(2020)

follow that Robin
Greetings again from the darkness. In the years since Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel was first published in 1911, "The Secret Garden" has become one of the most popular and oft-read children's books. Previous film adaptations include the 1949 version with Margaret O'Brien and Dean Stockwell, and the 1993 version with Kate Maberly and Maggie Smith. Additionally, the novel has been adapted numerous times for the stage and television. Director Marc Munden is working with the screenplay adapted by Jack Thorne (WONDER, 2017), and the two had previously collaborated on the BBC series "National Treasure". Readers of the beloved novel will certainly recognize the changes and differences within this version, both in characters and theme.

As the film begins, we are told it's "the eve of Partition", which was the 1947 division of British India into two separate states: India and Pakistan. This timing is, of course, quite a bit later than Ms. Burnett's setting, but the effect is the same - young Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx) is orphaned when her parents die, and left alone when the servants desert her. She is shipped off to live with an uncle (Oscar winner Colin Firth) she doesn't know. Accompanied to massive Misselthwaite Manor by the housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock (Julie Walters), Mary quickly understands that Uncle Archibald Craven is a grieving widow (his wife was Mary's mother's sister) who is not to be disturbed, and his hunchback is not to be stared upon. Mary soon learns that her spoiled brat manner will not be tolerated, though her natural spunk will prove advantageous. The young girl is one who is accustomed to be waited on, while also wanting to prove her independence.

Mary's imagination is extraordinary and she often asks, "Do you want to hear a story?" CGI effects allow us to see what she has envisioned, whether it's the wallpaper coming to life, or her mother and aunt frolicking through the halls or swinging in the garden. Mary soon befriends Martha the maid (Isis Davis), and then happens upon "Jemima" the dog while wandering the estate grounds. It's here where the fantastical and supernatural meet reality, and a helpful Robin leads Mary to the key that unlocks the gates of the gardens that have been locked away since Uncle's wife died. Mary and her new friend Dickon (Amir Wilson) go on adventures through the garden - a garden which has mystical powers.

One evening Mary hears cries echoing in the halls of Misselthwaite. Despite being forbidden from exploring, she discovers her cousin Colin (Edan Hayhurst) locked away in a far off bedroom. Colin is a sickly child, supposedly stricken with a spinal problem that keeps him from going outside. Mary continues to visit Colin, and soon she and Dickon are sneaking Colin into the secret garden, where the magical healing powers begin to take hold. The titular garden doesn't make an appearance until about one hour in, but its beauty and wonder are on full display.

This is a story about the power of loss and grief and depression, and it offers the life lesson that the things we care for blossom and grow and thrive. This version has some elements of such classics as "Peter Pan" and "The Chronicles of Narnia" in that fantasy and magic play a much larger role than in the novel. Director Munden employs a darker approach and seems to emphasize self-discovery. Young actress Dixie Egerickx was a standout in the recently watched SUMMERLAND, and she is terrific here - despite the changes to the story that some fans might not embrace. The film seems a bit disjointed at times, but it's always a feast for the eyes, and offers up one of the year's best scores, courtesy of Oscar winner Dario Marianelli (ATONEMENT, 2007).

Waiting for the Barbarians
(2019)

Pain is truth
Greetings again from the darkness. Nobel Prize winning author J.M. Coetzee's revered novel was first published in 1980, and renowned composer Philip Glass later adapted the South African writer's work into a 2005 opera. It's a fascinating piece of literature that, on the surface, doesn't lend itself easily to the silver screen. Perhaps it works because Mr. Coetzee wrote the screenplay himself, and rising star director Cirro Guerra brings it to life. Mr. Guerra's two most recent films were both excellent: BIRDS OF PASSAGE (2018) and EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (2015).

Mark Rylance (Oscar winner for BRIDGE OF SPIES, 2015) stars as The Magistrate of a desert outpost on the fringes of territory controlled by 'The Empire'. The Magistrate is mild-mannered and non-confrontational. He's a fair administrator, and Rylance's outstanding performance ensures he's a sympathetic figure, yet not a perfect man. The Magistrate's approach is to maintain a peaceful co-existence with the local nomads, who are described as 'barbarians' by others in The Empire.

Things change quickly and severely when Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) arrives at the settlement. We see his approach thanks to cinematographer Chris Menges' beautiful wide shot of Joll's horse-drawn carriage surrounded by desert and mountains. Depp plays Colonel Joll as a stoic man committed to a mission he never fully states. Instead he sermonizes about his interrogation process with such gems as "patience and pressure" are the key, and "truth has a certain tone". It's not long before we learn, right along with The Magistrate, that Joll's definition of 'pressure' would be termed torture and brutality by any reasonable person. His ruthless 'interrogations' lead to the result he was sent to obtain: the local barbarians are planning an uprising.

Director Guerra provides sub-chapters for the various seasons through which the story progresses. The Colonel arrived in "Summer" sporting sunglasses, and proclaiming "Pain is truth. All else is subject to doubt." It's a mantra that plays out in various ways. "Winter" brings 'the girl", a native with two broken ankles and other signs of torture. The Magistrate and the girl (Gana Bayarsaikhan, EX MACHINA) have an unconventional relationship, one that doesn't go over well with Joll's police force or the other locals, including Mai (Greta Scacchi), one of the loyal outpost staff members.

"Spring" is subtitled 'The Return', and it includes The Magistrate returning the girl to her people, and his subsequent return to the outpost where Joll's second-in-command, Officer Mandel (Robert Pattinson), has him arrested and tortured for consorting with the enemy. Pattinson plays his role in wild-eyed contrast to Depp's stoicism. When "Autumn" rolls around, it becomes clear that the real question is, "Who is the enemy?" or, perhaps, "Who are the real Barbarians?" The Magistrate is viewed as a traitor and laughingly referred to as "one just man".

It's frustrating at times to think about the modern day application of this story. What is an empire? The violence, narcissism, and lust for power lead to a loss of humanity that is painful to observe. Filmed in Morocco and Italy, the oppressive nature of the frontier makes this quite a downer, and one that requires effort and time to connect as a viewer. It also allows Menges and his camera to capture the details of the office and apartment, along with the sparseness of the jail ... both in contrast to the vast frontier. This is a either a tale of morality or a cautionary warning shot that solidifies Joll's adage. Perhaps pain is indeed required for truth.

Made in Italy
(2020)

house and family reno
Greetings again from the darkness. The Tuscan region of Italy is one of the most beautiful places on earth. It's a terrific choice for the setting of one's first screenplay and directorial debut. It's also a marvelous spot for real life father and son actors to work together. All of that is in play here as noted actor James D'Arcy delivers his first feature as writer-director, and the father-son team of Liam Neeson and Micheal Richardson star as, yes, father and son. This is a story of estrangement and re-connecting amidst the glorious wonder of Tuscany.

Jack (Micheal Richardson) has delayed signing the divorce papers delivered by his wife Ruth (Yolanda Kettle, "Marcella") in hopes of buying her family's art gallery, which he has been managing. Ruth gives him one month to come up with the money. Jack knows his only hope is to sell the Tuscan estate he co-owns with his estranged father Robert (Liam Neeson). Father and son have rarely spoken since the mother-wife was killed in a car accident while Robert was driving. Like most any parent under duress, Robert made decisions he thought were best for his son, but were actually made with self-interest. In the wake of tragedy, rarely is shipping the kid off to boarding school a better choice than pulling them closer. This prevented the development of any relationship, though it also created a block in bohemian artist Robert's work.

When they arrive at the home, the men are shocked at the advanced state of disrepair. Sharp-tongued local real estate agent (and ex-pat) Kate (Lindsay Duncan) gives them little hope for a sale unless renovations are made. The manual labor drives yet another wedge between father and son, and Jack finds an attractive good listener in local restauranteur and chef Natalia (Valeria Bilello). She happens to love the house he owns and, in jest, offers a dish of her "amazing" risotto as down payment.

The challenges of home renovations coupled with the locked away memories lead Jack and Robert to a breakthrough, but Jack's issues with his wife and Natalia's troubles with her ex-husband mean nothing goes smoothly for anyone. Most of the movie is spent with each of these folks trying to come to grips with the personal waters they themselves muddied.

Micheal Richardson does a very nice job here, and actually holds his own on screen with his powerhouse father. Richardson is the son of Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson, and the grandson of Oscar winners Vanessa Redgrave and Tony Richardson, and the great-grandson of actor Michael Richardson. It's nice to see father and son working together, though the story line might have hit a bit too close to home, given the death of Natasha Richardson in 2009 (a skiing accident). Writer-director James D'Arcy is known for his fine work in front of the camera, including Christopher Nolan's DUNKIRK. Thanks to the work of cinematographer Mike Eley in capturing Montalcino, Mr. D'Arcy's first feature behind the camera is watchable, despite being easily predictable and formulaic.

Ut og stjæle hester
(2019)

Don't be bitter
Greetings again from the darkness. Contrasts are plentiful in this film. The bleakness of winter versus the greenery of summer. The resignation of old age versus the naivety of youth. Pet Petterson's award-winning novel was released in Norway in 2003, and then in English version in 2005. Norwegian director Petter Moland tackles it with the best intentions, though the nuances prove too much for one movie. Mr. Moland is a fine director as evidenced by his excellent IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE (2014) with Stellan Skarsgard and the English remake COLD PURSUIT (2019) with Liam Neeson.

Morland and Skarsgard reunite as the actor takes on the role of the elder Trond, who we first see as he has relocated to Norway from Sweden. Through his narration, we learn Trond has lived in Sweden for 42 years, and it's a chance meeting with his new neighbor Lars (Bjorn Floberg) that triggers memories of one summer when he was 15 years old. It's now 1999, and the impending new millennium has Trond self-isolating on top of the grief and loneliness he has carried since his wife was killed in a car crash. Skarsgard is an actor who can be either sympathetic or powerful, and he brings gravitas to a character who is mostly lost at this late stage in life.

Much of the film is spent in Trond's flashback to 1948, when he lived the summer with his father, a "practical" man, at his cabin in Norway. Young Trond is played very well by Jon Ranes in his first role. He clearly admires his father (Tobias Santelmann, KON-TIKI, 2012) and enjoys working beside him and taking rain showers alongside. Over the weeks, Trond and his father become entangled with a village family after a tragedy involving Lars (the future neighbor) when he was very young, and Lars' father and mother (Danica Curcic). What follows for Trond are the things in life that cause us to alter our view of people and the world. Lost innocence is rarely easy.

Cinematographer Rasmus Videbaek (A ROYAL AFFAIR, 2012) captures the beauty of nature during the 1948 summer, as well as the stark white stillness of 1999 winter. Some of the look and feel and symbolism reminds of the work of Terrence Malick. The stunning Norwegian landscapes play a role for us as viewers and for Trond. There are also some quiet moments that carry weight between the elder Lars and Trond, as the missing pieces of life slowly fall into place.

The elder Trond states his goal is "to sleep as heavily as possible without being dead", but we see part of him may have already died. Flashbacks to that summer, and even earlier during the war, combine with some awkward conversations with Lars to fill in gaps that had blurred over the years. Childhood memories from old age are often not to be trusted, but coming to grips with one's family and the past may bring peace - or it may not. Trond is an avid reader of Dickens' "David Copperfield" and there are many references throughout. He's even given life advice: "Don't be bitter", which is a worthy goal for all. It's an odd film with multiple timelines and damaged characters at different stages. It may not reach the level of Petterson's novel, but director Moland gives us plenty to mull.

Psychomagic, a Healing Art
(2019)

hope you don't need treatment
Greetings again from the darkness. Alejandro Jodorowski is a long-time avant-garde and visionary director known for cult classics EL TOPO (1970) and SANTA SANGRE (1989). He's now 91 years old, and this is his first film since ENDLESS POETRY (2016) - only categorizing this as a "film" is a bit of a stretch. More in line with what we see would be, 'a procession of demonstrations of Jodorowski's own trauma therapy that he calls Psychomagic'.

Fortunately, we kick off with Jodorowski himself explaining his therapy. He defines Psychoanalysis, founded by Sigmund Freud, as being based on science and words. In contrast, he defines his Psychomagic as based on acts and touch. We then transition directly into an ongoing session - a sequence likely to be the last one many people watch, as only the most curious (or those charged with reviewing the film) will subject themselves to more.

The rest of the runtime is broken into "cases" distinguished by the specific reasons people are seeking treatment. Few can argue that treatments for emotional trauma can vary widely, and that not everyone will be affected the same, and that we should all be open to whatever works. However, I can assure you, Psychomagic treatment is unlike anything you have seen or experienced. These filmed sessions come off more like an acting workshop than therapy, though we are to assume they are legitimate.

Not to spoil anything, but rather to offer a taste of what's in store, you should brace for full body shoe polish while dancing at night, the shattering of dinner plates on the patient's chest in nature, pouring cold milk on an unclothed person, the simulation of birth for 'grown ups', sledgehammers on pumpkins decorated with family photos (OK, this one actually makes some sense!), sprinkling water on a massive tree to treat depression, burying a wedding dress, and participating in Mexico City's Walk of the Dead. And I have skipped over the connection between menstruation and finger-painting and cellos.

Artists often thrive with great freedom, and the therapeutic effects of art have certainly been proven many times. It's just that watching this, I became something beyond skeptical. It reminded me of the old-time healers, and the fine line between healing and scamming. Perhaps it was the regular inclusion of clips from Jodorowski's films that put me on high alert, or maybe it was simply the progression of segments that each struck as more outrageous than the last. Jodorowski is an old man with a history of creating art, so I'm choosing to give him the benefit of the doubt, though it's not an easy task after enduring this.

Summerland
(2020)

learning from one another
Greetings again from the darkness. We get our first glimpse of Alice Lamb as an older woman in 1975 pounding away on her Royal typewriter before abruptly and rudely shooing neighborhood kids away from her door. We then flashback thirty-something years to World War II, and find a younger version of Alice still clacking away on the same Royal and still chasing off the local youngsters. Segments with the older Alice bookend the film, but most of our time is spent with the younger Alice in the first feature film from writer-director Jessica Swale, a renowned playwright.

Gemma Arterton (QUANTUM OF SOLACE, 2008) plays younger Alice, a writer and researcher based in the countryside of Kent. She's not just a reclusive writer, but we learn she's holding a grudge against the world ever since she was denied true love while at University. The townspeople view her as antisocial, while the local kids refer to as a witch. When the local school Headmaster (Tom Courtenay) refers to her "stories", she quickly corrects him to "Academic Thesis." It's no wonder she's earned the label, "Beast on the Beach."

During the German Blitz, many London families sent their kids to live with families in the much safer countryside. One day an official brings young Frank (Lucas Bond) to Alice's home for temporary guardianship, and she responds "I don't want him" ... yes, in front of the boy. Frank's father is fighting during the war, while his mother is working with the ministry. Of course, we know that Alice's iceberg of a heart will eventually thaw, and it begins when Frank expresses an interest in the legends and folklore at the center of Alice's research. Of particular interest to Frank is Summerland, the pagan term for afterlife, and the corresponding images.

As an evacuee, Frank is a bit of an outsider at school, but he makes friends with Edie (Dixie Egerickx, THE LITTLE STRANGER, 2018), a spirited young lady who, like most kids, doesn't much trust Alice. It's interesting to watch as Frank and Alice reluctantly grow closer, but this is war time, and joy is sometimes difficult to come by. However, this odd couple seem good for a life lessons to the other.

Penelope Wilton plays the older Alice and Gugu Mbatha-Raw lights up the screen in only a few scenes, and it's Ms. Arterton's best work since TAMARA DREWE (2010). Young Alice experiences visions and memories of a past life not meant to be. The twist is quite obvious, yet no less effective. Ms. Swale's film is sentimental and melodramatic, and probably employs a few too many clichés. Yet, although predictable, it does offer hope; and given the times we are in, a hopeful message is quite welcome - as is the reminder that "stories have to come from somewhere."

The Fight
(2020)

the grinding gears of ACLU
Greetings again from the darkness. The American Civil Liberties Union has been around since 1920. That's 100 years of striving to be the stewards of our nation's liberties. Eli B Despres, Josh Kriegman, and Elyse Steinberg are the three credited directors who bring us a behind-the-curtain look at the dedicated and hard-working ACLU attorneys in the New York office.

The film picks up on January 27, 2017, just seven days after President Trump's inauguration and subsequent immigration order, also known as the "Muslim ban." We are shown a sea of volunteer attorneys set up to assist affected immigrants - especially those seeking asylum. The basic premise of the movie is to provide a glimpse of the challenges faced by the ACLU against the Trump administration.

Since there have been approximately 140 lawsuits filed since this President took office, the filmmakers wisely focus on four specific cases, along with the assigned attorneys: Garza v Hargan, which involves the right to an abortion for an immigrant minor; Stone v Trump, the administrations military ban of transgenders; Department of Commerce v New York, dealing with the "citizenship" question proposed for the U.S. census; and Ms. L vs ICE, a family separation case tied to a child taken from her mother at the border.

The cases are presented in an easy-to-follow manner, and we get to know each of the attorneys and their individual challenges, both with their specific case and their own personal or family life. Each of the attorneys provide their unique "tour" of the ACLU offices, and we quickly understand how they are focused on their own specialties, rather than the organization as a whole. One of them remarks that there are more tattoos and piercings present than at the DOJ, which underscores not just the age difference, but also the attitudes of these crusaders.

A very brief history of the ACLU informs us that their mission dictates they support civil rights for all, which means not just the 1967 interracial marriage of Richard and Mildred Loving, but also the Charlottesville Rally which resulted in the death of Heather Heyer. In keeping with protecting 'everyone's rights', the organization has even defended the rights of Nazis. Still, it's obvious where the organization stands when Brett Kavanaugh's nomination for the Supreme Court is discussed ... the attorneys admit it will make their jobs that much more difficult.

Despite attorney Lee Gelernt's middle-age struggles with technology (somehow the dude can't keep his cell phone charged), the dedication and commitment of these folks is on full display (they even celebrate with "train wine"). Court cases, by definition, have two sides, and since we aren't allowed in the actual courtroom to witness the cases being presented, this film focuses on one side. Because of that, it often plays like a fundraising or recruiting video for the ACLU. Still, the behind-the-scenes view of what these attorneys go through to fight for liberty is fascinating and worthwhile.

Rebuilding Paradise
(2020)

feel the heat
Greetings again from the darkness. It's November 8, 2018 and the film opens with the daily weather report. For the residents of Paradise, California, this will forever be their worst nightmare: 'Camp Fire', the deadliest and most destructive fire in the state's history. The first 9 minutes of film shows harrowing footage captured by dash cam, helmet cam, smart phones, news footage, and drones. As it begins, one resident says, "Honey, there's stuff falling out of the sky." Soon after, we hear a firefighter state "we are 100% surrounded by fire", and as we ride in the car with a frantic family trying to escape, we hear their relief in the "clear skies" they finally glimpse.

This is a National Geographic production and it's directed by 2-time Oscar winner Ron Howard. Mr. Howard is best known for his popular films like CINDERELLA MAN (2005), APOLLO 13 (1995), and yes, BACKDRAFT (1991). In the past few years, he's directed documentaries on Luciano Pavarotti and The Beatles, but as best I can tell, REBUILDING PARADISE is his first step into Cinema Verite - letting the moments of reality unfold while capturing it with mostly handheld cameras.

By 11:38 am, the only light in the skies of Paradise is coming from the glow of the massive and intense fire. The aftermath can only be described as total destruction. Paradise is in ashes. We see the desperate attempt by first responders to ensure that all citizens are evacuated, and then we witness the search for bodies. Camp Fire killed 85 people and displaced 50,000 people, including all of Paradise (80 miles north of Sacramento). The challenges included finding shelter for residents, keeping folks out of town while the fire smolders, and figuring out what the next steps might be.

Director Howard structures the film with visits every 3 months, and to make it personal, a handful of folks are selected. These include Woody Culleton, a man who rose from self-professed town drunk to town mayor (now ex-Mayor), Police Officer Matt Gates, School Superintendent Michelle John, and School Psychologist Carly Ingersoll. Each of these people have their own personal struggles due to the fire, but they are also focused on assisting others, and helping the town of Paradise plan for the future.

It's a full month before residents are allowed back to salvage anything possible from the ashes. At three months, activist Erin Brockovich gives a speech about the possible liability of PG&E and their equipment from 1921, while a logjam of dump trucks is used to clear debris from town. At six months, the high school seniors are given a graduation ceremony they will never forget, and at 9 months, healing and rebuilding is underway. We gain some insight into the struggles with FEMA and city government, and yet mostly what we witness is a community dedicated to remaining a community.

Mr. Howard chooses to end the movie with clips and warnings about global climate change, which may fit in a larger discussion, but here, the most effective segments are moments with folks simply trying to put their lives back together. That's more powerful than anything else we can witness.

Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind
(2019)

a ghost from a wishing well
Greetings again from the darkness. We realize very quickly that octogenarian Gordon Lightfoot isn't about to cater to co-documentarians Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni, or establish a new reputation as being a sweetheart at this stage of life. Instead he is filmed with his third wife Kim, watching clips of young Gord singing "(That's What You Get) For Loving Me". Despite his singing it with Johnny Cash, or having the song covered by Peter, Paul and Mary, Waylon Jennings, and many others, Lightfoot cringes and says. "I hate that song." That's what we get here - a man who speaks directly about his regrets, yet one who is appreciative of his life.

Lightfoot is thought of as Canadian Royalty, and is often referred to as the best ever Canadian singer-songwriter. He certainly played a key role in the popularity of folk music in the 1960's, and we hear about his influence from many important Canadian musicians, including: Geddy Lee, Sarah MacLachlan, Tom Cochrane, Ronnie Hawkins, Burton Cummings and Anne Murray. For some inexplicable reason, the filmmakers include an interview with actor Alec Baldwin, who is neither Canadian, nor a musician - though at least he does seem to be a fan of Gordon Lightfoot.

The profile skips over much of his personal life to focus on the music. In fact, initially it seems like Gord is going to walk us through his songbook, one by one. With "Early Morning Rain", we learn it was not only a hit for Lightfoot, but covered by others such as Judy Collins, Elvis Presley, Neil Young, and even Ian and Sylvia (a successful Canadian folk duo). It's also at this point when Burton Cummings explains that it was Lightfoot's songs that inspired The Guess Who to write their own songs. We also see a clip of a young Lightfoot being interviewed by an even younger DJ named Alex Trebek!

Anne Murray and Sarah MacLachlan discuss "Song for a Winter's Night", and Lightfoot explains how he isolates to write songs ...and he "waters" his guitars (something that makes more sense seeing than reading). Gordon tells the story of how he quit a promising career in banking to take a chance on performing, and he relates how growing up in the country helped him when he moved to the city. He also tells the fascinating "behind the scenes" story of how the record company changed the name of his first album after "If You Could Read My Mind" became a hit on the radio. By the way, that song has been recorded by a slew of artists - so many that the filmmakers offer up a slide show to make the point.

Photographs give us a taste of some of Lightfoot's infamous parties attended by various celebrities. It was this partying lifestyle that led to drugs and alcohol abuse, as well as his weight gain. Lightfoot talks about his 3 year affair/relationship with Cathy Evelyn Smith, a name you might recognize as the woman who injected John Belushi with the lethal "speedball" that killed him. It was his severe jealousy over Ms. Smith that led Lightfoot to write his biggest U.S. hit "Sundown." There is also an entire segment on Bob Dylan, and how much respect each of the songwriters had/have for each other.

Yet another "behind-the-scenes" moment occurs when one of Lightfoot's band members recollects the time they recorded "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." They had never even rehearsed the song, and yet it was the first take in the studio that ended up being the hit version. Also included is a segment where Lightfoot reminisces about his childhood in Orillia, and we get a brief clip of his mom and dad. Even more shocking is the included recording of Lightfoot as a kid, singing with the church choir. The high pitched soprano voice bears little resemblance to the soothing tones of an older Gordon.

As a poet-singer-songwriter, few have been better or had more success than Gordon Lightfoot. The film skims over much of his personal life and his severe health issue in 2002, but focusing on the music is what his fans want - and it's a treasure trove of early performances, clips, and photographs. He's now 81 years old, and the filmmakers don't shy away from contrasting his singing voice on "If You Could Read My Mind" with a 'then and now' edit. Lightfoot admits to regrets, and also states "I appreciate having been alive." Still sporting that renowned attitude, he undoubtedly enjoys hearing Diana Krall and Sara MacLachlan open the film with the titular song. A Canadian national hero indeed. As a bonus, we southerners finally learn the meaning of "Gitche Gumee."

Turf Nation
(2020)

my place of business
Greetings again from the darkness. "I still ain't made it to my goal." One of the dancers admits this is what keeps him going, though he never actually discloses what that goal is. In this 13 minute documentary short, director Jun Bae takes it to the streets of the Bay Area, and the tunnels and train cars of BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit).

Smeeze is a dance move you've likely seen on rap videos, and this group of dancers utilizes that, as well as tutting, gliding, and bone-breaking ... that last one is particularly cringe-inducing for those of us not double-jointed. They perform for the passengers and take up a collection afterwards. One of them calls this the steady income, while another refers to BART as "his place of business".

Lavish is the dancer credited with creating "The BART Show", and it's these performances that keep them going between video shoots. Listening to them take credit for turning a rap song into a "movement" is quite interesting, as they sincerely believe that's the case - despite the rappers getting the fame. We see them perform on "Jimmy Kimmel Live", as well as some rap video clips. The language is pretty rough - lots of profanity and uses of the n-word - but this is the world these street dancers have made their own. We may not connect with the individuals, but we recognize that they have created their own enterprise and seek the independence that we all value.

Amulet
(2020)

things aren't as they seem
Greetings again from the darkness. Horror films tend to serve up relatively simple plot points so that viewers are controlled by emotions rather than deep thinking. The exceptions typically use multiple story lines and atmosphere to build up suspense that often ends with a twist or surprise ending. You might recognize Ramola Garai as an actress from SUFFRAGETTE (2015) or the TV series "The Hour", and this is her first feature film as writer-director. She definitely chose the latter plot path, and the result is likely a film that will be divisive amongst the horror crowd.

Tomaz (Alec Secereanu, GOD'S OWN COUNTRY) is a former soldier with such a horrid case of PTSD that he must bind his own hands when he sleeps. He's now homeless and adrift, merely surviving day-to-day. We see flashbacks to his time as a soldier working a checkpoint deep in the forest. The war is never identified, but one day he decides to help a frantic woman (Angelika Papoulia) rather than shoot her (as we assume his orders dictate). This story and their time together pop up periodically through the movie to the point where we start to believe we have an understanding of Tomaz's background.

While squatting with other homeless folks, the building where they sleep catches fire, and soon after Tomaz is taken in by Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton), a caring nun who gives him a purpose - helping out a woman who is dealing with a sick, elderly mother. Magda (Carla Juri) seems withdrawn and initially not particularly happy that Tomaz is living in her house. And, oh my, that house. Dilapidated is too kind as a description. So in addition to a bed, and Magda's cooking, Tomaz begins repairing the house. And while you may have your own renovation stories to tell, did you ever pull an albino bat out of the toilet? Tomaz has.

Magda does not allow Tomaz to see her mother. He (and we) only hear the confrontations and see the bite marks on Magda's arms. Clearly something is amiss. The flashbacks to Tomaz as a soldier with Miriam make for a stark contrast between the forest and Magda's creepy house. It's in the forest where Tomaz finds the titular amulet buried. If you've always thought of an amulet as a good luck charm, your definition will likely change.

It's interesting to watch the shifts in the relationship between Tomaz and Magda, culminating with a night out dancing, where she reminds us a bit of Elaine Benis at the company party ... although Magda's is a pure emotional release, rather than a comedic effect. As you might expect, the film is at its best when Imelda Staunton is on screen. Unfortunately, these moments are too rare. The "old school" gothic graphics for the opening credits do make for a terrific stage-setter. While Magda's locked-away mother provides some mystery, the tension of the story never really matches the creepy atmosphere of the house. Ms. Garai includes some excellent moments of horror images, but the deliberately slow pace doesn't deliver a satisfying payoff.

Turf Nation
(2020)

my place of business
Greetings again from the darkness. "I still ain't made it to my goal." One of the dancers admits this is what keeps him going, though he never actually discloses what that goal is. In this 13 minute documentary short, director Jun Bae takes it to the streets of the Bay Area, and the tunnels and train cars of BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit).

Smeeze is a dance move you've likely seen on rap videos, and this group of dancers utilizes that, as well as tutting, gliding, and bone-breaking ... that last one is particularly cringe-inducing for those of us not double-jointed. They perform for the passengers and take up a collection afterwards. One of them calls this the steady income, while another refers to BART as "his place of business".

Lavish is the dancer credited with creating "The BART Show", and it's these performances that keep them going between video shoots. Listening to them take credit for turning a rap song into a "movement" is quite interesting, as they sincerely believe that's the case - despite the rappers getting the fame. We see them perform on "Jimmy Kimmel Live", as well as some rap video clips. The language is pretty rough - lots of profanity and uses of the n-word - but this is the world these street dancers have made their own. We may not connect with the individuals, but we recognize that they have created their own enterprise and seek the independence that we all value.

Radioactive
(2019)

doesn't quite capture the impact
Greetings again from the darkness. There can never be enough movies made or books written about remarkable people with incredible accomplishments. Marie Curie was certainly a remarkable woman and her accomplishments were such scientific break-throughs that we are still using them today. Director Marjane Satrapi's (Oscar nominated for PERSEPOLIS, 2007) film is based on the 2010 book "Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout" by Lauren Redniss, and the screenplay was adapted by Jack Thorne (THE AERONAUTS, 2019).

The film opens in 1934 Paris, and we see an enfeebled Marie Curie (Rosamund Pike) collapse and get rushed to hospital - a sequence used by director Satrapi as a framing device. The film quickly flashes back to 1893 when a headstrong and brilliant twenty-something Marie Salomea Sklodowska gets kicked out of her laboratory for being ... well ... a bit too headstrong for the times. Soon she meets an equally headstrong and also brilliant scientist named Pierre Curie (Sam Riley). Pierre recognizes the potential if they combine forces, while Marie initially demands her independence, having never found another scientist worthy of the efforts required for collaboration.

The initial flirtations between brainy scientists is as clumsy and awkward as one might expect. In general, the film struggles with how to best address Curie's personal life with her professional life and the challenges she faced as a brilliant woman in an era when male scientists didn't much appreciate a woman scientist telling them they have "misunderstood the atom", as she and her husband announce the discovery of not one, but two new elements: radium and polonium. Romance and science and equality are a lot for one film to tackle, and this one flounders a bit.

As the film and science progress, director Satrapi intersperses flash-forward vignettes to show how Curie's discovery of radioactivity is used in the future for both good and not so good. These dropped-in segments include cancer treatment for a little boy in 1957, the Enola Gay bombing Hiroshima in 1945, the Atomic Bomb test in 1961 Nevada, and of course, the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. The segments aren't always a smooth transition from Curie's story, but they make the point of how scientists don't always have control over how their discoveries are applied. There is even a scene where Pierre shows Marie some comical uses entrepreneurs found of trying to capitalize on their discovery, and how their work might factor in to everyday life.

As a biography or profile of Marie Curie's life and accomplishments, the film hits the high notes, though we do wish it dug a bit deeper. The gender prejudices of the times are somewhat underplayed, and even Marie herself claims lack of funds and the fact that she wasn't a natural born Parisian held her back more than the roadblocks she faced as a female scientist. It would seem reasonable that those issues were likely tied together and should not be separated. She lashes out at Pierre regarding the Nobel committee initially keeping her name off the submission, but of course this anger is misplaced, as Pierre demanded she be included.

The historical aspect of her winning two Nobel Prizes is not treated as the astonishing accomplishment it is, but time is spent on a personal scandal that occurred after Pierre's death. We do see Marie sleeping with a sample of her radioactive uranium, and watch her slow physical deterioration, including an incessant cough and damaged skin. Late in the film, Anya Taylor-Joy plays her daughter Irene, and we see the two of them head onto the battlefield to provide mobile x-ray devices for injured soldiers. The Curie family tree is filled with renowned scientists (Irene and her husband Frederick jointly won the Nobel Prize in 1935 for artificial radioactivity), and some of these discoveries literally changed the world - including cancer treatments. Perhaps it's unrealistic to expect any movie to capture the historical importance of Marie Curie, but we are somehow left feeling she deserved better.

Guest Artist
(2019)

You won't be sorry
Greetings again from the darkness. "Based on an incident which became a play which became a movie." It's with this note, the film version of Jeff Daniels' 2006 play begins. Daniels also stars as (fictional) playwright Joseph Harris, who won a Pulitzer Prize, an achievement he rarely lets anyone forget. Harris' success seems to have left him tormented and blocked, as he hasn't written anything "readable" in 20 years ... a tidbit we learn from his agent (Erika Slezak, more than 2200 episodes of "One Life to Live"). The two meet for "coffee", which is literary code for early drinking ... a hobby Harris seems dedicated to during all waking hours.

That scene with Mr. Daniels and Ms. Slezak is one of the two best in the film - the other being near the end. The two long time collaborators wage a war of words - some offensively, others defensively - and the agent gives as good as she receives. When he claims to hate television, and proclaims "I'm a playwright", she counters with "You're a dinosaur." We learn much about the Joseph Harris character in this sequence. While it's easy to label him a burnout, we sense there is something deeper that has him dreading the trip from New York City to Michigan to fulfill a contractual obligation with a local theater group.

Once Harris arrives in small town Michigan, the vast majority of the rest of the film is shot inside the quaint train depot ... a station that most of the passing trains don't even slow down for. Over-eager playwright-wannabe Kenneth Waters (played by newcomer Thomas Macias) is late to meet his hero, and for that, he is subjected to mounds of verbal abuse from Harris, who can barely maintain consciousness over inebriation. Despite his love for the bottom of bottles, Harris proves always capable of a vicious diatribe directed at easy target Kenneth. However, periodically mixed in with the poison, are some words of wisdom for the young man.

The bulk of the film is a competition between Harris and Kenneth. Can the young local theater apprentice convince the washed up legend to stay in town and fulfill his theatrical duty? Adding spice to the proceedings is the train master (played by Richard McWilliams), who not only wields a wicked baseball bat, but he also sees, hears, and judges everything that happens in his station.

As part of the ongoing negotiations, Harris agrees to read the first play Kenneth has written. The young man eagerly awaits the insightful feedback from his idol, but the moment becomes a lesson in worshipping heroes ... they are just as human as us. Mr. Macias does manage to mostly hold his own in what easily could have been a one-man show, if not for Harris' need for someone at whom to direct his rants. We half expect Kenneth to mutter, "I'm your number one fan!" as he absorbs the insults and takes in the life lessons.

The backstory for this one is pretty interesting. Mr. Daniels admitted in an interview that he wrote the story based on actual events in the theater many years ago involving playwright Larnford Wilson, who might not view that as a compliment, were he still alive. This is also the first film under Grand River Productions, a joint venture of Mr. Daniels, Tim Busfield (who directs the film), and Mr. Busfield's wife, actress Melissa Gilbert ("Little House on the Prairie"). It was shot mostly in Chelsea, Michigan where Mr. Daniels lives, and where he founded his Purple Rose Theater Company. And the homegrown aspect goes even deeper. Busfield's son Wilson Coates Busfield is the DP, while Daniels' son Ben did the composing.

It seems obvious that Daniels learned some lessons on structuring dialogue from his time on "The Newsroom" with Aaron Sorkin. We hear it in such lines as "I'm a playwright. I'm eternally serious", as well as the ongoing battle between hope and cynicism. Typing out the opening credits is a nice tough for a movie featuring a writer, but the "I'm not sorry" bits are overplayed. As mentioned previously, the two best sequences are that opening in NYC, and the scene outside the depot near the end, when Harris comes clean on what he's written and why - a scene that also includes the best and most heart-breaking line in the film. It may not be "The Great American Play", but there is plenty here to take in and think about. Sorry, not sorry.

The Sunlit Night
(2019)

don't let the sun go down on me
Greetings again from the darkness. The journey to find one's self is not unique to artists, but for some reason, it's more cinematically appealing when an artist is involved. In this quirky film from director David Wnendt, with a screenplay Rebecca Dinerstein Knight adapted from her own novel, artists (of varying types) are everywhere. Of course finding one's self usually involves making peace with this quagmire we call life.

Frances (Jenny Slate, OBVIOUS CHILD, 2014) watches as three snooty art critics denigrate her latest work to the point of humiliation. Her long-time boyfriend dumps her, and she returns home to her parents, both artists. Instead of sympathy from the family, she's bombarded with news that her sister Gaby (Elise Kilbler) is engaged to a man her father loathes, and to top off the family dinner, her parents (Jessica Hecht, David Paymer) announce they are separating. Rather than deal with any of this head-on, Frances accepts an apprenticeship with an artist in north Norway. "Norway, Norway". Where the sun never sets.

Nils (Fridtjov Saheim) is the personality opposite to talkative, upbeat Frances. He grumps around while escorting her to the trailer she'll stay in for the summer. The project, seemingly uninspiring, is to paint a local dilapidated barn yellow - inside and out. Nils is under a tight deadline to finish the barn so it (and he) can earn a spot on the map of cultural sites. Close by is a Viking museum and community, where the folks, led by their Chief (Zach Galifianakis), re-create Viking life for tourists (or mostly themselves).

One day Yasha (Alex Sharp, HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES, 2017) shows up. He's arranging a ceremonial Viking funeral for his beloved father (Olek Krupa). Father and son worked together daily in their bakery and developed a close bond. Sasha's mother (Gillian Anderson), who left them years ago, unexpectedly shows up for the funeral, hoping to lure him to live with her. Frances compares everyone she meets to subjects in famous works of art. It's her way of connecting art to the real world, as well as helping her find a place for people in her world of art. Frances and Yasha are drawn together in their search for direction and meaning, and we are led to believe this connection, no matter how brief or random their crossing of paths might be, helps her in her personal quest.

The cinematography from Martin Ahlgren captures this rarely seen top-of-the-world wonderland, and the landscape is truly something to behold. Ms. Slate is once again top notch in her role. She's likable and relatable, traits some actors struggle with, but which apparently come natural to her. And while we expect lives to be messy and complicated, we hope for a bit more from our movies. Frances' home life is drawn straight out of a TV sitcom, and the whole Viking village never really makes sense. It seems Frances is short-changed on all of her relationships here, yet the trip still manages to help her discover something in her art. And that's just about how life works - really messy right up until something clicks, and then back to messy.

The Painted Bird
(2019)

Cruelty of war and humanity
Greetings again from the darkness. Polish-American writer Jerzy Kosinski's 1965 novel "The Painted Bird" has one of the strangest and most controversial histories of any book. Initially celebrated as an extraordinary piece on the Holocaust era, the novel was banned in Poland, and author Kosinski was accused of falsifying claims of it being an autobiographical work. Later he was accused of plagiarism for this book and his 1970 book "Being There" (adapted into a 1979 movie starring Peter Sellers). This story of a young Jewish boy, abandoned by his parents and traveling the Eastern Europe countryside during WWII, is now accepted as a blend of fiction and his friend (director) Roman Polanski's experiences. Czech filmmaker Vaclav Marhoul has turned the book into a stunning viewing experience.

First time actor Petr Kotlar is extraordinary as the unnamed (until the end) Jewish boy on a journey that might be entitled Dante's Circle of Abuse or Homer's Odyssey of Misery. This is a young boy in need of kindness from strangers, but unable to find much. The film opens with the boy running through the woods carrying what appears to be his pet ferret. He's being chased by a group of sadistic Anti-Semite bullies. It's a chase that doesn't end well. We learn the boy is living with his "Auntie" Marta (Nina Sunevic) on her rundown farm, and we intuit that his parents thought he would be safer here than with them. When the woman dies suddenly and unexpectedly, the boy accidentally burns the house down, kicking off his walk across the countryside. Almost inexplicably, this is the most upbeat segment of the film.

Director Marhoul divides the film into 9 chapters, each named after the person the boy meets and lives with temporarily. I'll recap the following eight chapters with a focus on not giving away too much ... just know that this film is unrelenting in its brutality and bleakness. After Marta's death, the boy stumbles into a village where he is considered cursed and labeled a vampire. The witch doctor Olga (Ala Sakalova) enslaves him until he escapes down river, where he is rescued by a mill worker. The head miller (Udo Kier) is a frightening man who takes exception with his worker (not the boy) gazing lustfully at his wife. Kier's eyes manage to burn right through the black and white film, and soon he turns exceedingly violent towards his wife and the worker, leaving us with an unforgettable visual.

The boy then finds himself at the home of Lekhi (Lech Dyblik) who captures wild birds and regularly hooks up with Ludmila (Jitka Cvancorova), a wild woman who lives in the forest. The boy witnesses two horrific deaths, but not before the sequence which gives the film its title and ensures we understand what happens to outcasts - those who are different. At about the one hour mark, the boy finds an injured horse and walks it into the local village. It's at this point where we hear him speak (kind of) for the first time. A violent Russian invasion of the village results in the Cossacks offering the bound and gagged Jewish boy to the German soldiers as a "gift". Stellan Skarsgard is the veteran soldier who draws the assignment of taking the boy into the woods to shoot him.

When the soldier sends him on his way, a sickly Catholic Priest (Harvey Keitel) takes the boy under his wing and trains him to be an altar boy. All is fine until a parishioner (Julian Sands) with despicable intentions agrees to take the boy in and provide for him. This segment has what may be the most cringe-inducing death scene in the film, after which we find the boy trudging through snow and falling through ice, and crawling towards a cabin where Labrina (Julia Valentova) and a sickly old man live. The boy faces more abuse as he's incapable of pleasing Labrina, which leads to situations he's much too young to understand. Traumatized, the boy's personality takes a turn.

In his next village, an attack by Germans puts the boy in contact with Russian sniper Mitka (Barry Pepper), who leaves him with the real life advice of, "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth." Having only recently lost his innocence, the advice hits home for the boy. He ends up in an orphanage where a surprise occurs that causes the boy to lash out in anger ... at least until he observes something that makes him understand the world has been cruel to others, not just him.

Normally, I wouldn't recap or outline the segments of a movie in this manner, but it's crucial to understand what you are about to watch. It's a nearly 3 hour epic of human cruelty and survival instinct. Young Petr Kotlar spends much of the movie taking and witnessing abuse while his face is near emotionless (save for a couple of extremes). Joy is elusive, if not non-existent. The film shows us not all Holocaust horrors occurred in death camps. The atrocities of war and the cruelty of humans result in a film that is beyond bleak at times, but also makes a clear point about how differently people treat those not "like" us, regardless who the "us" is. This point is as evident today as it was during WWII.

Director Marhoul excels in showing, rather than telling ... there is almost no 'telling' throughout the film. Cinematographer Vladimir Smutney makes expert use of the 35mm black & white film to provide images that are stark and brutal like the world the boy sees. The Production Design from Jan Vlasak puts us right in the muck, while the Sound from Jakub Cech is crucial to every scene.

The film is a joint project of Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Ukraine, as Poland refused to participate. It had quite the festival run last year, including some high profile walk-outs during the Venice Film Festival. It's one of the rare movies that every cinephile is thankful to have seen, yet as human beings, we would likely never want to watch again. Murder, abuse, suicide, torture, bestiality, rape, violence, cruelty, slaughter, pedophilia, incest, war atrocities ... these aren't topics we typically seek out, and they thankfully aren't topics that all show up in a single movie very often! There are a few moments of compassion if you watch closely, but mostly it's a reminder of the cruelty of humans when the structure of society collapses, and hope is hard to come by. As Edwin Starr sang in his number one hit in 1970, "War, good God. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing."

The Fall
(2019)

mob mentality nightmare
Greetings again from the darkness. Filmmaker Jonathan Grazer is known for two things: making music videos for Radiohead and Blur, and for the unusual and thought-provoking feature films he makes - SEXY BEAST (2000), BIRTH, and UNDER THE SKIN (2013). His most recent short film is only six minutes long, yet plays like both a horror film and a societal commentary.

We open on some trees at the edge of a forest. One tree stands out as its branches and leaves are rustling briskly. The camera pulls in and we see a group of masked folks violently shaking the tree as another masked person desperately clings to the trunk after climbing out of reach. What follows is very much like watching someone else's nightmare ... the kind of nightmare that elicits a cold sweat and a rude awakening.

The percussion and sound effects are perfect compliments to what we witness, and the sound is crucial right through the end credits. We never see an actual face, but Mr. Grazer generates extreme tension with just a few scenes and no dialogue. The commentary on mob mentality is spot on for what's occurring these days, and the film will jolt you accordingly.

Suzi Q
(2019)

much more than leather
Greetings again from the darkness. "Home is where the heart is." That's a two thousand year old phrase whose sentiment has multiple interpretations. It's the phrase that came to mind while watching Liam Firmager's profile of Suzi Quatro, the pioneering female Rock 'n Roller. She started as a middle-class Detroit girl who went on to have a huge international career, though her music never really clicked with the U.S. audience. The emotions from and towards her family are even more complicated.

Playing a bass guitar that made her look even smaller than her diminutive 5 foot frame, Quatro was quite the stage presence in her leather jump suits (inspired by Jane Fonda's character in BARBARELLA) and constant motion. Kathy Valentine of The Go-Go's admitted that she had never even thought about women playing instruments in a rock band until she saw Suzi. Most of the interviews here have a similar thread: Suzi Quatro was a main influence for such female rockers as Cherie Currie and Lita Ford of The Runaways, KT Tunstall, Debbie Harry, Tina Weymouth of The Talking Heads, and of course, Joan Jett. We hear from each of these musicians as they pay tribute to their trailblazer. When Suzi is described as "the quintessential rock 'n roll chick", it's obviously a term of respect.

The film has a bit of a disjointed structure and uneven flow, but that doesn't diminish the message. Suzi Quatro was a daring ground-breaker. We get some of the backstory regarding her family, as she credits her mother for instilling Catholic morals, and her dad for passing along his performing gene. But it's the sisters who provide the most insight. These are the type of sisters who didn't tell Suzi about an offer from renowned music producer Mickie Most, because they didn't want her to quit their band and have success without them. It's these same sisters who, almost 50 years later, refuse to give Suzi the respect she so craves.

Alice Cooper speaks to her influence, and Henry Winkler recalls her time as Leather Tuscadero, a recurring character on "Happy Days." We also hear from Len Tuckey, Suzi's guitarist and first husband, who offers insight to the band and the person. There is also a segment (with a clip) on her success in the stage musical "Annie Get Your Gun", and, on a personal note, we learn Suzi is the aunt to actress Sherilynn Fenn ("Twin Peaks").

Suzi Quatro has sold over 55 million records in her career ... and she still plays live gigs today (well at least prior to the pandemic). The driving ambition that motivated her to pursue her dream is still there, although she admits "most girls gave up music to have a life." We see her in 1973 and in 2019. The leather and the energy are still present, as is the mystery of why she was so much more popular internationally than in her home country. The film touches on the male-oriented business and the sexism that occurred. There is footage of a stunning moment on a British talk show where the host actually slapped her on her leather-clad derriere. Imagine that moment today! Was Suzi Quatro ahead of her time, or did she come along at just the right moment? Either way, the professional success contrasted with the unresolved family issues, make this more than a standard rock bio. It's a history lesson with a moral to the story.

Kaye Ballard - The Show Goes On
(2019)

much more than a 'screaming Italian'
Greetings again from the darkness. I feel obligated to disclose that while growing up, I was never much of a Kaye Ballard fan. It seemed she was mostly seen on game shows ("Hollywood Squares") and her many appearances on Talk Shows and Variety Shows. Her loud and boisterous humor was a bit outside the nuanced observational humor I preferred. Now, after seeing Dan Wingate's documentary, I have tremendous admiration and respect for this multi-faceted performer whose showbiz career spanned more than 70 years.

One of the first clips we see is Kaye Ballard performing in front of a live audience (where she was always most comfortable) and she says, "I wish I was 90 again." It's a great line that not many comedians get to use. Ms. Ballard died in 2019 at age 93, and she never stopped performing. Director Wingate's opening credits are in "old school" style, replete with flashing neon lights and big band/orchestral music. It's the perfect choice for the profile of a performer who evolved as the business changed.

We listen as she recollects the start of her career, and then systematically walks and talks us through the next 70 plus years. She was only 16 years old when she joined Spike Jones' band, and she admits performing is what she always wanted to do. Wingate includes comments and clips from an incredibly diverse group of entertainers - ranging from Liz Smith to Perry Como to Henry Mancini to Bette Davis to Carol Burnett to Ann-Margret to Woody Allen (and many more). Composer-Singer Michael Feinstein has a few appearances throughout the film, providing some structure, but interviews with Ms. Ballard keep her on screen much of the time.

It's clear she always thought her best work was from her time in nightclubs, and though she never stopped those performances, her career shifted to live theater and then to TV. Her best-known TV role was co-starring with Eve Arden in "The Mothers-In-Law" series from 1967-69 (re-runs available on Amazon Prime), and then later had a recurring role in "The Doris Day Show." Ms. Ballard was a vibrant performer and an extremely talented singer.

She jokes about being typecast as a "screaming Italian", but hearing her talk about her friendships, including Marlon Brando, Carol Channing, and the recently deceased Jerry Stiller, makes it clear she established many personal connections over the years, and was always quick to help out another performer. She even speaks to a couple of exceptions, including Phil Silvers. And who would have guessed she crossed paths with Andy Warhol, while also performing for President Ronald Reagan at The White House? This is a woman who is very grateful and appreciative of the career and friends she made, and I walked away feeling educated, and maybe even guilty for undervaluing her talent. Kaye Ballard was much more than an "X" or "O" on "Hollywood Squares" ... she was an incredibly talented and generous woman who lived her dreams.

Olympia
(2018)

a powerful woman role model
Greetings again from the darkness. She is now in the 7th decade of her acting career. She was married to one man for 55 years. She recently turned 89 and is still working regularly. Olympia Dukakis is a marvel to behold. Strong-minded, direct-speaking, charismatic, talented and long-lasting, she makes a fascinating subject for director Harry Mavromichalis in his first feature-length documentary.

An early segment features Ed Asner presenting her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Soon after she admits that "it doesn't mean anything" to her, but her Academy Award did. She won the Best Supporting Actress for her role as Cher's mother in MOONSTRUCK (1987), and we later see her at the ceremony as her elderly mother is captured watching it unfold on TV. This moment matters because we have already heard Olympia discuss her challenging times growing up with her mother (she claims to have channeled her own mother for the role).

Much of this documentary was filmed years ago. We are there on her 80th birthday and her 49th wedding anniversary. Clips are included from some of her theater work, as well as movies. Playing a transgender character in PBS' "Tales of the City" (1993) made her a gay icon, and we see her as Grand Marshal of the Gay Pride parade in San Francisco. This is especially timely today given that Halle Berry just announced she was stepping down from a transgender role ... due to the pressure brought on by her not being transgender.

Olympia is very forthcoming in discussing her approach to life, and life itself. She discloses the initial doubts she had regarding a woman's place in Greek history, before bucking up and proclaiming "it's not me that's less." When she felt the theater world considered her "too ethnic", in 1973 she founded The Whole Theater in Montclair, New Jersey. She refused to let the world place limits on what she could do. She offers up many personal memories such as her time fencing at Boston University - stories that provide clear examples of her personality and makeup.

As I watched the film, my thought was that it meandered a bit too much. Upon reflection, it makes complete sense, as that's the manner in which she lives and works and thinks. We see clips as she converses with her cousin Michael Dukakis, the former Governor of Massachusetts, during his candidacy for President. The film bounces around with stops in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Cypress. Toronto was for a Norman Jewison retrospective (including MOONSTRUCK), and while in Cypress we walk the aisles of a grocery store with her (very weird).

Insight is offered from fellow actors such as Laura Linney, Austin Pendleton, Lainie Kazan, and Whoopi Goldberg, but it's really the bits and pieces we get regarding her long-term marriage to actor Louis Zorich that are most meaningful. The couple discuss why their marriage and partnership has worked, and how friendship is the key. Louis passed away in 2018, and Olympia continues to act and teach acting classes. We even get a peek behind the curtain when we watch her work through/find a character in rehearsal. Seemingly tacked on towards the end are clips from a trip to her mother's village in Greece with her daughter and grandkids. It's a chance to see her interact with local women, and does provide a stark contrast to what Olympia has done with her life. She claims that she can "remember plays and theaters"; however, "it's people" she doesn't remember. She can be certain that the people will remember her.

Relic
(2020)

an imaginative directorial debut
Greetings again from the darkness. Anyone who has a friend or relative afflicted with dementia knows it's often like living in a real life horror film. It's frustrating and claustrophobic and guilt-inducing and above all, frightening. The first feature film from director Natalie Erika James deals with dementia, amongst other topics, in the guise of a horror film. Is it a haunted house movie? Is it a demonic presence movie? Well, yes to both. The script from Ms. James and Christian White blends multiple familiar aspects of horror films into something that ends up quite original.

"Ends up" is the key, because the first two-thirds of the story moves slower than a glacier in the middle of winter. Don't get me wrong, the film looks great - the house and the atmosphere are ultra-creepy. It's just that almost nothing happens during that span, and that's an eternity for set up. Kay (Emily Mortimer) receives a call that a neighbor hasn't seen her mother in a while. Kay and her 20ish daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES, 2016) take the drive over the hills and through the woods to grandmother's house. Their initial measured walk-thru of the house tells them (and us) much. Post-it notes are stuck everywhere, including one that says "Don't follow it". Spoiled fruit on the counter, a favorite chair moved, and food for a pet long ago passed, are all indicators that something is off. If that's not enough, the house that grandma is missing from has mold on the walls and ceiling, and strange locks on doors.

After an unsuccessful search party through the nearby woods, Grandma Edna (Robyn Nevin) reappears with no recollection of where she's been. Of course, this doesn't really improve things for anyone. We sense that workaholic Kay and her mother have never really been close, and the same can be said for Kay and Sam. Generational disconnect is on display. And poor Edna has lost her husband, her pet dog, and most of her essence ... except for the few moments when she snaps back to lucidity.

Dread and impending doom dominate every scene for the first hour. Kay has dreams of an old cabin from her past, and Edna has an unexplained bruise on her chest. The stained glass window on the front door is a key, and the sounds coming from the walls are unable to be tracked down. As disoriented as Edna is, the house itself has that impact on us and Sam. Is it the house that's haunted, or the characters?

The cinematography from Charlie Sarroff plays well off the stillness and unknown, and the sound design and music (Brian Reitzell) work hand-in-hand in establishing the creepy atmosphere. The three actresses are superb, and I especially enjoyed Ms. Nevin and her piercing eyes, as she is known mostly for her live theatre work (and also as Councillor Dillard in The Matrix movies). For her first feature, Ms. James has delivered a high-concept Australian horror/suspense film with a very original (and weird) ending. Others may be a bit higher on the film, but we likely all agree that Ms. James is an intriguing filmmaker.

Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo
(2019)

Machete's new leaf
Greetings again from the darkness. It's easy and convenient to lump folks into the old adage "people don't change", because not changing is the easiest way. However, we'd be hard pressed to find someone who fits the "turned over a new leaf" description better than Danny Trejo. He has certainly made the best of his second chance ... and he knows it. What makes his story inspirational is his willingness, no make that determination, to share his own story in hopes that he can help others.

Director Brett Harvey surprises us in a couple of ways with this documentary. First, he spends the first two-thirds on Trejo's background, with barely a mention of movies. Second, he recognizes the gold to mine here is derived from Trejo himself, and he allows the man to talk and show us what he's all about. Sure, we get bits of insight from Trejo's neighborhood friends, his acting peers, and his own kids and sister, but no one can tell Trejo's story better than Trejo. In fact, director Harvey bookends the film with Trejo talking to convicts, and beginning with "my number was B-948."

While cruising around town in his 1956 Chevy Bel Air, Trejo points out "Richie Valens Junior High", which is actually Pacoima Middle School. It's fascinating that he still lives in the same area in which he was raised, especially after we hear him recall his childhood. As a kid, his hero was Uncle Gilbert - the cool guy who had money, cars, and girls. Trejo stuck like glue to Gilbert, who turned the boy onto weed at age 8 and heroin at age 12, and then transitioned him to armed robbery (including a live grenade!). It was four bags of sugar sold to an undercover cop that sent Trejo to San Quentin.

Trejo is very direct as he discusses his time in prison and what occurred to push him towards getting his life in order. He mentions it's not about reform, but about keeping a promise. He talks about the 'predator or prey' aspect of prison and recalls some of the best advice he received: remaining on the path of drugs-alcohol-crime can only lead to death-insanity-jail. He absolutely believes these words and works this in to his motivational speeches to this day.

He stumbled backwards into an acting career, simply by visiting a friend on the set of RUNAWAY TRAIN (1985). His look and that tattoo were instrumental to his acting gigs, and that's where the title of the documentary comes from - he was cast as "Inmate #1" in the early days. Of course, things really exploded for him after his second cousin, director Robert Rodriguez, cast him as the silent assassin in DESPERADO (1995), and then again when Trejo got the lead in the tongue-in-cheek MACHETE (2010) which spawned from a fake trailer in the Rodriguez-Tarantino blend GRINDHOUSE (2007).

One of those interviewed states, "They make movies about guys like him", and by the time the documentary ends, we simply with there were more people like Danny Trejo in society. It's rare that we find such respect for an actor after getting to know what they are like "in real life." He may joke about learning acting at the San Quentin School of Dramatics, but he spends most of his time doing good for others. His infectious laugh and upbeat demeanor are traits of a man who appreciates his second chance in life. Just keep in mind, "Machete don't text."

Elvis from Outer Space
(2020)

TCB
Greetings again from the darkness. All you Elvis Presley fans out there can relax. This is not a documentary. In fact, trying to put a label on the film co-written and co-directed by Marv Z Silverman and Tracy Wuischpard would be pointless ... unless we can just agree on "Midnight Movie Madness", and leave it at that.

Not that I would ever encourage such activity, but some have declared that the best 'midnight movies' are most enjoyed whilst a sufficiently mind-altered state is achieved, and one is unnaturally influenced by beverage or 'other'. Now that's a category this film easily and happily (and likely by design) fits in. There is no reason to start this film while thinking clearly, and actually, thinking is best avoided for the entire 90 minute runtime.

The story kicks off with the narrator explaining that Elvis has spent the last 30 years or so with the aliens of Alpha Centauri. He has been playing music for the community of ETs proving "music is the universal language." 'But now Elvis is homesick for Earth and wants to see his daughter, Linda Bess Truman. The aliens contact the CIA and arrangements are made for the drop in Area 51. Some quick math places the story sometime around 2010 or a couple years prior.

There is no way I will risk spoiling the zaniness that occurs, but Elvis, now codename John "JB" Burrows, finds himself in the 1970's Elvis World Crown Competition at the Desert Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. You may have heard about the time that Charlie Chaplin lost a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest, but here, JB brings down the house as an Elvis impersonator. He's so good the other contestants (quite a motley crew) question his identity. One of those is "Big M" who is also the film's narrator. All of this drama is broadcast via "Barry Live", a TMZ type show delivers laughs along with the daily scoop.

George Thomas plays JB/Elvis, and he seems at ease in the jumpsuits, although those fake sideburns are a punchline by themselves. David Heavener is Big M and the narrator, and his initial role as rival shifts as the story progresses. Diane Yang Kirk plays CIA Agent Messina, who is on JB's side, and Lauren-Elaine Powell is Jackie, the earthly love interest. Barry Ratcliffe nearly steals the show as the TV host of "Barry Live", and I believe TJ Myers plays daughter Linda, while Martin Kove (you'll recognize as bad guy Kreese from THE KARATE KID, 1984) is the State Trooper. Alexander Butterfield is CIA Chairman Townsend, and in real life, Mr. Butterfield served as Deputy Assistant to President Richard Nixon, and was the one who revealed the existence of the Oval Office recording system during the Watergate investigation. Best of all, Sonny West appears as himself. Sonny was part of Elvis' "Memphis Mafia" back in the day. Sonny and his cousin Red West died within a couple of months of each other in 2017.

Hopefully you've picked up that this move is so far outside of mainstream that a traditional review is simply not possible. Animation is used for the aliens and spaceships and the rest of it must be seen to be ... well, seen. It appears to be a re-boot of Mr. Silverman's 2011 project entitled MEMPHIS RISING: ELVIS RETURNS, making most of the footage almost 10 years old. Still, a passion project is the heartfelt pursuit of a filmmaker, whether it's SCHINDLER'S LIST or Elvis being held captive in 'Area 52'.

I, Pastafari
(2019)

pirates and pasta
Greetings again from the darkness. You are to be excused for not taking seriously any person, club, organization, or religion that chooses to be identified by wearing colanders (pasta strainers) on their head. After all, many municipalities and courts of law would and have agreed with you. Still, writer-director Michael Arthur takes a direct approach in presenting the Pastafarians, and many will be on board with some of the points made.

Bobby Henderson founded the "ancient but forgotten religion" in 2005 to oppose the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in schools, and claimed Pastafarianism as a real religion, "as much as any other." The intent was to keep religion out of government-financed schools. While many will agree with the philosophy, it is difficult to gain credibility when one's deity is an invisible 'flying spaghetti monster' and your leader defends the religion as legitimate by showing up in court wearing a colander on his head.

Mr. Arthur takes us through The Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Russia, and Costa Rica as he explores the followers and the factions. We meet Bruder Spaghettus, who claims humans and Pastafarianism are descended from pirates, and he attributes the increase in global warming to a decrease in the number of pirates. Many religions have had "splits", and this one is no different in that regard. What is different here is that Bruder's Pastafari followers wear pirate garb instead of colanders. Only you can decide if that's an improvement. Is this a real religion, a fake religion or a parody of religion? Director Arthur interviews followers, as well as academic scholars in search of the truth.

Reading between the lines, it appears likely that the religion was started as a lark, but has evolved into a somewhat loose organization with a philosophy of opposition to "traditional" religions being given more power, respect, advantages, and influence than should be the case. There is no real evidence to support claims that Pastafari (a play on words from Rastafari, the Jamaican Abrahamic religion) is the 'fastest growing religion' or has 'millions of believers.' Is it possible to take a serious look at a ridiculous topic? What Mr. Arthur finds is that it seems legitimate to question the manner in which "real" religions are treated with privilege. The film doesn't feature founder Bobby Henderson, which seems odd, and it skims the surface more for entertainment than enlightenment. And what I have to say to that is ... R'amen, brother.

The Outpost
(2020)

puts us in it
Greetings again from the darkness. Director Rod Lurie's latest is not only based on a remarkable true story, it uses the real American soldier's names (and some real soldiers) and depicts the valiant efforts of those who were part of the Battle of Kamdesh in Afghanistan on October 3, 2009. Mr. Lurie (THE CONTENDER, 2000) is a West Point graduate and Army veteran, and the film is based on the book by CNN correspondent Jake Tapper, with a screenplay from Eric Johnson and Paul Tamasy.

We first meet the new arrivals on their helicopter transport under the cover of darkness. They have been assigned to this combat outpost known as "Camp Custer." The nickname comes from the assumption that everyone there is going to die. Why is that? Well for some reason, this military outpost is positioned so as to be surrounded by the foothills of a mountain range - creating a natural shooting gallery of which the soldiers are sitting ducks. It's one of the most vulnerable military outposts ever created, and with it comes so many Taliban attacks that the soldiers can't even take seriously their local scout's constant warnings, "The Taliban are coming!"

There are 53 soldiers assigned to the camp, and the aura of impending doom hovers non-stop. To compensate, joking around and playing sports are utilized to pass the time between attacks. The men even debate whether calling home is a good thing or not. One of the bunk beds has "It doesn't get better" carved into the frame - that's a taste of the kind of inspiration floating around. "Thank you for your service" is pure parody amongst these soldiers, and it's easy to understand, given the tension they must feel - we are nervous merely watching from the safety of an armchair.

The performances are solid and you'll recognize a few. Orlando Bloom is Lieutenant Keating, Scott Eastwood is Sergeant Cline Romesha, and Caleb Landry Jones is a standout as Carter, the ex-Marine outcast who is more complex than initial impressions lead us to believe. On an unusual note, the list of "relateds" is quite impressive: Eastwood is of course the son of Clint, Milo Gibson is the son of Mel, James Jagger is the son of Mick, Will Attenborough is the grandson of Sir Richard Attenborough, and Scott Alda Coffey is the grandson of Alan Alda.

Director Lurie divides the film into chapters associated with officers, but the segment that most every viewer will find riveting is the near-40 minute attack on the outpost by hundreds of Taliban gunmen. It's relentless battle action at a level rarely seen in movies, and we feel like we are in the middle of it. This onslaught feels like hopelessness, followed by desperation, followed by survival mode. Never does it feel like an outright victory, but more a relief for those who survive. Cinematographer Lorenzo Senatore makes this a visceral experience - one we won't forget.

Very little politics come into play here. Instead this is about the men in the line of fire - their courage - and their desperate attempts to live and hold the outpost. All of which is followed by a haunting breakdown that stuns. This battle resulted in 8 dead and 27 injured American soldiers, followed by many medals, including two Medal of Honors. The closing credits honor those killed in action, and we see photos of the actual soldiers next to the actor who played them.

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