IMDb member since July 2000
    2016 Oscars
    2014 Oscars
    2013 Oscars
    2010 Oscars
    2008 Oscars
    Lifetime Total
    Top Reviewer
    Poll Taker
    IMDb Member
    22 years


What the Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears?

what goes up ...
Greetings again from the darkness. "What goes up, must come down" ... those are the opening lyrics to "Spinning Wheel", a huge hit for the brass-rock band Blood, Sweat & Tears. The lyrics are meant to convey the cycles of life, but they also reflect the meteoric rise and fall of the band itself. John Scheinfeld is a knowledgeable and passionate documentarian behind profiles of such acclaimed musicians as Herb Alpert, Brian Wilson, Sergio Mendes, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, John Lennon, Harry Nilsson, Bette Midler, Rick Nelson, Rosemary Clooney, John Coltrane, Andy Williams, and Dean Martin. He's a natural choice to provide the answers to the titular question.

A 9-piece jazz-rock band hitting the charts big time is not something that could have been predicted in the late 1960's. Scheinfeld opens the film with clips of the band live on stage in Bulgaria in 1970 as David Clayton-Thomas belts out "Spinning Wheel". We learn they were the first American rock band to perform behind the Iron Curtain, and we also learn there is more to the story. Much more. At the time, the United States was in the Vietnam War and social and political unrest and upheaval were occurring regularly. There is every indication that the State Department invoked a strategy of using a popular band to ease tensions in communist countries. It was the legal and visa issues of Canadian singer Clayton-Thomas that provided the opening the State Department needed to pressure the band to undertake the tour with the goal of softening the U. S. reputation as a bullying military force.

Ultimately, it was a tour that turned most everyone on all sides against the band. Romanian concert goers initially enjoyed the 'freeing' aspect of the band's music, but soon the police used dogs to break up the crowds and end the celebration. When the band returned home, the counterculture couldn't forgive them for the tour in communist territory, and the conservative right couldn't forgive them for being against the Vietnam War. Everyone was upset at Blood, Sweat & Tears.

We get a bit of the band's history in that it was founded by Al Kooper in 1967 when they introduced a new sound, however, after the first album, it was determined a new singer was preferred and a very brief audition from Clayton-Thomas secured the job for him. The rest of the band consisted of Jim Fielder on bass, Bobby Colomby on drums, Steve Katz on guitar, Dick Halligan multiple instruments, Jerry Hyman on horns, Fred Lipsius on sax, and trumpeters Chuck Winfiled and Lew Soloff. For the most part, the band members were not politically outspoken. The exception was Steve Katz who was adamantly opposed to the foreign land tour. It was the band's second album that changed everything. Three huge hits - "And When I Die", "You've Made Me So Very Happy", and "Spinning Wheel" - helped them win Album of the Year over the now classic Abbey Road from The Beatles.

Scheinfeld solves another mystery when he explains why, listed as headliners, the band was not featured in the "Woodstock" documentary. Not surprisingly, the answer involves money, and of course, the band members now look back on their manager's decision with some regret. But there is more to the story of the band's faded glory than the communist block tour. An early Las Vegas residency, though a much sought-after gig these days, garnered the label "square" for the band ... this despite performances at the Fillmore and MSG. Although the band never regained the popularity of that second album, they did have subsequent hits that included "Hi-De-Ho" (written by Carole King) and "Go Down Gamblin'". Perhaps most shocking is that more than 65 hours of concert footage was shot on the Iron Curtain tour, yet the State Department shelved the documentary project, likely for political reasons given the police and military activity against concert goers. Bonus points to Scheinfeld for solving a couple of long-term musical mysteries here, and also for including some "Bullwinkle" clips.

Abramorama will release the film in theaters beginning March 24th.

The Lost King

Sally and Richard
Greetings again from the darkness. Obsession often gets a bad rap. Sure, being obsessed with another person to the point of stalking is not just bad, but illegal. However, most hobbies are a form of obsession ... you know, like watching movies! OK, that was a self-serving (weak) attempt at making a point, although obsession can lead to innovation and discovery. In fact, if an obsession does turn into something productive or exciting, it is often re-labeled as commitment. That's pretty much the moral of the story when it comes to Phillipa Langley.

Ms. Langley wrote the 2013 book, "The Search for Richard III", the basis for this screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Cope, and this film by director Stephen Frears ... all three whom collaborated on the Oscar nominated PHILOMENA (2013). Based on the true story, the always terrific Sally Hawkins stars as Phillipa Langley. Ageism has compromised Ms. Langley's job, as has her Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), medically known as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME). But Phillipa is no victim, and it's a stage production of Shakespeare's "Richard III" that sets her off on deep research into the life and death and after-death stories of the former and often disrespected King.

Shakespeare's play is referred to as "historical", but it's Phillipa who reads all the books and attends the lectures, and even joins the Richard III Society. She quickly realizes many of the theories about the malformed usurper and his character and actions are not correct. She sets her mind to calculating his final resting spot; meaning she's certain his corpse was not dumped unceremoniously into the river.

An interesting and entertaining aspect of the film is that Richard III (Harry Lloyd) "haunts" or follows Phillipa during her research. She sees him and talks to him, adding a new dimension to her obsessive behavior and the "feelings" she often possesses. After initial skepticism, Phillipa's ex-husband John (played by co-writer Steve Coogan) begins to support her quest, as do their young sons. She searches not just for a body supposedly buried in the 15th century, she also searches for funding and partnerships. The city of Leicester offers to assist in cutting red tape, but funding is a bit more challenging, though she finally finds a supporter in archaeologist Richard Buckley (Mark Addy) who understands how to work the University grant system.

As an amateur historian-researcher-sleuth, Phillipa proves to be a stronger person than even she thinks herself to be. What unfolds for her is a textbook example of power plays and glory hogs as those who had once laughed at her theories, began to take credit for the accomplishment and bask in the publicity. Credit in the academic world is often more valued than knowledge or integrity, and yet Phillipa's sense of accomplishment did ultimately lead to the Queen awarding her MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire).

Director Frears has had a prestigious career with films including: THE QUEEN (2008), HIGH FIDELITY (2000), THE GRIFTERS (1990), and DANGEROUS LIASONS (1988). And Sally Hawkins consistently brings a realism and likability to her roles to the point that we simply believe her every move. Here she portrays a woman whose search for Richard allowed her to find herself. We will never view that "R" in a reserved car park the same way again.

Opens in theaters March 24, 2023.

Kubrick by Kubrick

genius on tape
Greetings again from the darkness. The throngs of us who are not artistic geniuses ae always fascinated with insight and analysis from those few who are. And when said genius is renowned for eschewing interviews and most any chance to discuss the work, we become all the more intrigued. Such is the case with Oscar-winning director Stanley Kubrick. Although he passed away in 1999, Kubrick's filmography features many classics that are studied in film schools today: THE KILLING (1956), PATHS OF GLORY (1957), SPARTACUS (1960), LOLITA (1962), DOCTOR STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964), 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971), BARRY LYNDON (1975), THE SHINNG (1980), FULL METAL JACKET (1987), and EYES WIDE SHUT (1999).

Gregory Monro is a biographer and documentarian (JERRY LEWIS: THE MAN BEHIND THE CLOWN, 2016) and as the structure for this profile of Kubrick, he uses the recordings made by French film critic Michel Ciment during his conversations with Kubrick spanning nearly 20 years. Ciment used the recordings as the basis for his seminal 1982 biography on Kubrick, and Monro adds familiar clips from the well-known films, as well as recognizable set pieces and interviews from faces you'll surely recognize. These include a young Malcolm McDowell, a thoughtful Jack Nicholson, an annoyed Sterling Hayden, renowned author Arthur C Clarke (2001 interview), a frustrated Marisa Berenson, a forthcoming R Lee Ermey, and megastar Tom Cruise. Most of these folks worked with Kubrick.

Since most of us have not previously heard the recordings, it's the voice of Kubrick that draws us in and keeps us tuned in. The truth is, we've heard from many of his collaborators over the years, yet we've heard little from the man himself ... until now. Still, although we hear him talking, a natural defensiveness seems to prevent him going too deep on his inspirations, motivations, or objectives. He does speak often of "conflict", and we see two types in his film: war (PATHS OF GLORY, SPARTACUS, FULL METAL JACKET, DOCTOR STRANGELOVE), and personal (all of the others, including crossover with the war films).

With his reputation as a perfectionist, we are a bit surprised at how open Kubrick seemed to be with spontaneity. On one hand, we have Oscar-winning composer Leonard Rosenman (BARRY LYNDON) recalling tempers boiling over when Kubrick made the orchestra re-do the piece more than 100 times. On the other hand, he allowed actors like Peter Sellers and Jack Nicholson to bring their own spin to roles. Kubrick was a New Yorker who relocated to London, where we learn he ran his world, both professional and personal.

This is one for those cinephiles who never miss a chance to discover even a morsel of insight into the greats of cinema. We can't help but recall the 2015 documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut, although the master of suspense seemed much more willing to share thoughts on his craft than what we get here with Kubrick. None of this should be surprising from the guy who created and filmed the maze in THE SHINING.

Available VOD beginning March 21, 2023.


isolation, survival, sanity, and Dafoe
Greetings again from the darkness. We've seen movies about isolation, and we've seen movies with survival stories. However, as best I can remember, this is the first survival story about a guy isolated and trapped in an ultra-luxury Manhattan penthouse apartment. Ben Hopkins wrote the screenplay from an idea of director Vasilis Katsoupis. The best idea was casting the always interesting Willem Dafoe in the lead (and almost the only role), while the worst idea was wedging in a forced statement on the one-percenters.

Mr. Dafoe plays Nemo, an art thief working with a never-seen/only heard walkie-talkie partner. After being air-dropped onto the balcony via helicopter, the first few minutes are a thing of beauty in a criminally precise way. Nemo swiftly navigates his way through the apartment gathering paintings by famed expressionist Egon Schiele, whose self-portrait is to be the gem of the haul. The first problem is that painting is nowhere to be found, and the second, much more serious problem occurs when Nemo is ready to leave and the security system malfunctions. This renders Nemo a prisoner, trapped like a rat.

This is the type of apartment that features a plunge pool in the living room, two massive aquariums, a steel-reinforced door, and an automatic indoor sprinkler system for the plants. Valuable art is professional displayed throughout. What it doesn't have is an easy escape route. The sleek modernism of luxury slowly transforms into a cold, prison-like fortress. We watch as Nemo's initial panic is slowly overtaken by a sinking feeling of despair. His partner's final walkie-talkie words, "You're on your own", ring out as Nemo takes stock of his dire straits.

It's an unusual security lockdown. There is no running water, phone line, or emergency escape, yet the HVAC seems to have a mind of its own by spontaneously shifting from desert-level heat to Arctic winter cold. And for some reason, there seem to be no security cameras inside this high-tech apartment, yet the TV periodically displays closed-circuit video from around the building. Those cameras give Nemo his only link to the outside world, and also help us understand how far he has drifted from reality ... especially in regards to Jasmine, a cleaning lady he spots. He scavenges for food and water in some not-so-appealing ways, including some scraps inside a refrigerator that plays "Macarena" on full blast if the door is left open too long. Although we aren't told exactly how many days this ordeal lasts, we get some idea from a certain pile shown.

Any movie that has us engaged enough for us to ask ourselves, "What would I do in this situation?" has something going for it, but it's really Dafoe's performance as a guy losing his grip that keeps us zoned in. Supposedly the owner of this apartment is away in Kazakhstan, and given the weak attempt towards the end to comment on the ultra-rich, we assume this detail is meant to prevent us from having too much sympathy for him. It appears the filmmaker believes we should take a morality lesson from a criminal (one who doesn't carry a cell phone) who, as the narrator, tells us twice, "Cats die. Music fades. Art is for keeps." Opens in theaters on March 17, 2023.

Back to the Drive-in

the good old days are hanging on
Greetings again from the darkness. As one who spent many evenings in my childhood and teen years lounging in a vehicle as the clunky metal speaker hung from the car window crackling with the dialogue and sound effects from that night's movie, I was anxious for a dose of the nostalgia that April Wright's documentary was sure to inspire. However, rather than a feel-good flashback to better days, Ms. Wright deals head-on with the challenges faced by those devoted few brave souls keeping the drive-in tradition alive.

Covering eleven theaters across eight states, the film allows the owners to use their own words in describing the difficulties in running a drive-in. We hear that the pandemic was a boon for business at many of these venues, as people were desperate to get out of the house for entertainment, yet needed to maintain the required social distancing. Drive-ins became the perfect family outing, and a first-time experience for so many (especially kids).

But will the 'drive-in renaissance' endure? That's really the question at hand, and after two hours of listening to owners bemoan the difficulties, it's hard to hold out much hope. To ensure we get the full picture, the visited drive-ins cover Texas, Ohio, Nebraska, Maryland, New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, and California. They cover such diverse areas as Cape Cod, rural Texas, the Midwest, and San Bernadino County in California. The oldest was founded in 1952 (and purchased in 1984), while the newest was opened as the pandemic began. Most are family businesses, some handed down from previous generations.

So who wouldn't love to run a theater in the great outdoors where families come to spend time together, kids play, snacks are encouraged, and customers are treated to the joy of movie watching - usually a double feature? Consistently we heard the same issues from each of the owners and manager: proper staffing is nearly impossible, the full parking lots have openings since the pandemic has eased, the availability of first run movies has been negatively impacted by streaming services, maintenance of equipment is always difficult, and too many customers are downright rude these days. If that's not enough, the Cape Cod theater deals with "the F-word" ... no, not that one. Instead, it's the weather - specifically "og" (they refuse to pronounce the F). Yep, poor weather causes visibility issues from inside a vehicle, so even Mother Nature can be an adversary.

Sure, I was often jealous of the families that got to flip down the tailgate on their station wagon or pickup truck, but this movie doesn't focus on the thrill of watching a double feature of THE BIG LEBOWSKI and COOL HAND LUKE (as one of the massive neon marquees advertised). This is about the fading culture of drive-ins. We learn one of the profiled owners has already sold off his theater to a land developer for more than his revenue would be for the next 25 years! While watching, I kept thinking that the piano music was intrusive and the editing was a bit choppy, but I was left with the feeling of a Greek tragedy ... nice folks sadly losing a grip on the last bit of rope holding up an industry. Was it, as one owner says, "nice while it lasted", or is there still hope that future generations will get to hop out of the car and head to the concession stand during intermission?

On digital and On Demand (Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu) beginning March 14, 2023.

Stranger at the Gate

people are strange ... and can change
Should you ever doubt that kindness and understanding can make a difference, please watch this film from director Joshua Seftel (WAR, INC, 2008). The 29 minute run time may just rejuvenate your faith in human beings to change their attitude and be accepting of those they once distrusted.

As a Marine, Richard "Mac" McKinney was trained to hate and kill Muslims. He was informed that they were terrorists out to destroy his country, and September 11, 2001 was all the proof he needed. A simple question from his young daughter Emily convinced him he needed to act, so he plotted to bomb the Islamic Culture Center of Muncie (Indiana). So this former Marine, a trained killer and hater, headed to the mosque to obtain the "proof" he needed to convince his daughter that his actions were righteous.

A funny thing happened. Mac was treated kindly by the folks there. They asked him questions and guided him to a better understanding. Now this didn't happen overnight. A shift in beliefs never occurs quickly. However, their treatment of Mac not only (unknowingly) saved their own lives, it saved his as well. He may have been trained to not think of his war targets as human beings, but he found them to show him more humanity than he'd ever known. It's chilling to see Emily ponder what it would have been like to have a mass murderer as a father, and mostly we are inspired to see good people work so diligently at accepting someone who initially showed them nothing but hatred. Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai is one of the producers of the film.

The Martha Mitchell Effect

a standup woman
Greetings again from the darkness. Fifty years have passed, yet the Watergate scandal continues to provide us with stories. Co-directors Anne Alvergue and Debra McClutchy turn their attention to one of the fascinating figures of the era in this 40 minute short. Martha Mitchell was the wife of Richard Nixon's campaign manager and subsequent Attorney General, John Mitchell. Outspoken Martha was a colorful personality and characterized as "a menace" by Nixon himself.

The directors utilize archival footage and news reels to show how Martha became a media darling during one of the most closed-off administrations in recent history. Reporters such as Helen Thomas and Connie Chung bring a media perspective, as do the numerous newscast clips shown. However, things took a pretty dark turn for this charming lady, and her story provides a stark reminder of just how corrupt and extreme the Nixon administration became.

Once news of the Watergate break-in hit the news, Martha seemed to vanish from the public eye. Her story is that she was held captive, basically kidnapped, as the administration advanced a public character assassination on her. When the secret tapes were revealed, and Martha discovered her husband had conspired with Nixon on the break-in, she became a high-profile whistleblower, After Nixon's resignation, Martha became a celebrity, frequently seen on talk shows. Cast by many as a 'crazy' lady, the "Martha Mitchell effect" became the description for those whose 'delusions' turned out to be true. The recent TV miniseries "Gaslit" also focused on Martha Mitchell, who died in 1976 from a blood disease.


that first morning shot!
Greetings again from the darkness. For the first few minutes, we aren't sure what we are watching. Maxim is huddled in a rustic cabin on the shore of the Russian Arctic. He eats canned good (from the can), boils his water, and recycles his cigarettes. One morning he awakens to the grunting and groaning noises occurring outside. What follows is a stunning and spectacular shot of tens of thousands of walruses huddled on the beach by his hut.

It turns out Maxim is a Marine Biologist, and he spends 43 days observing this annual ritual of walruses as part of a 10 year study. Although the walruses show up every year, the effects of climate change are obvious. There is no longer ice for them to rest on during the trek. This exhausts the creatures, causing the death toll to increase each year. Co-directors (and brother and sister) Maxim Arbugaev and Evgenia Arbugaeva deliver a beautiful (considering the harsh conditions) 25-minute film, and a stark reminder of how animals are being forced to adapt to the changes.

The Elephant Whisperers

love leads to love
Director Kartiki Gonsalves introduces us to Bomman and Bellie, indigenous Kattunauakans working together to care for Raghu, an elephant rescued as an injured orphan in Tamil Nadu, India in 2019. The elephant preserve where they live and work is run by the Forest Department, and Bomman's hut is right next to the stall where Raghu sleeps.

The love they share for Raghu soon develops into a romance between Bomman and Bellie. They talk to Raghu, train him, feed him, bathe him, play with him, and even tuck him in bed at night. Later when they also become caregivers for 5-month-old Baby Ammu, we can see the similarities to raising human children. Both elephants make it into the wedding day pictures of Bomman and Bellie, but when Raghu is re-assigned to other caregivers, we witness the grieving of the couple, as well as that of Ammu, who has lost a friend and role model. The 41-minute film serves to show how animals and people can live off the same forest and share a love.

How Do You Measure a Year?

Greetings again from the darkness. We must admire Jay Rosenblatt's foresight as a father. It's a simple idea, yet brilliant in it's lasting impact. Beginning on his daughter Ella's second birthday, Mr. Rosenblatt maintained a tradition of videotaping an "interview" with her each year. This tradition, or ritual, continued through her 18th birthday. The result bounces between predictable, stunning, sad, joyful, and touching ... all in a condensed 29-minute run time.

To watch the progression of a precocious two-year old and three-year old toddler obsessing over a lollypop and make-up to a poised eighteen-year old on the brink of independence is fascinating. As a parent, we recognize the many stages ... some so cute, others so challenging ... each to be treasured.

Dad's questions include: What do you want to do when you grow up? What are you afraid of? What is power? What are dreams? What is most important to you? You get the idea. He wants to document her progression as a person and as a thinker. In addition to the lollypop and desire to wear make-up, Ella's singing voice develops beautifully as she grows into a 12-year-old who has learned sign language, and a 13-year-old fresh off her Bat Mitzvah. We see her with braces on her teeth, and as a 14-year-old toting the burden of her age. It's those last couple of years that really give us hope for Ella's future, and an insight into what the project has meant.

As a teenager, what would you have told your 25-year-old self?


"quiet" legislation creating noise
Greetings again from the darkness. It's pretty obvious these times are quite tumultuous when it comes to political views, as well as social and religious beliefs. Of course, differences of opinions have always existed, however the focus by media attention has created new types of monsters ... the vocal types who yell into microphones and cameras about how anyone who disagrees with their extreme view is a danger. Most of us understand that the real danger lurks in the things that get decided 'quietly' ... legislation that impacts people just trying to live their lives and do their jobs.

Documentarian Julia Bacha presents an extraordinary look at this exact topic ... legislation that restricts civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution. We are informed that 33 states passed some form of legislation outlawing the boycotting of Israel, and punishing individuals and companies that don't abide. Three specific cases are presented: a newspaper editor in Arkansas, a speech pathologist in Texas, and a lawyer in Arizona. Through this, we learn a great deal about how legislation affects those with viewpoints outside the accepted norm.

Bahia Amawi is a speech pathologist and mother of five in Austin Texas. She is also Palestinian. She refused to sign a document promising to never boycott Israel, and was subsequently fired from her position. Alan Leveritt is the founder and publisher of "Arkansas Times", a free community paper that survives on advertising revenue. He refused to sign a document promising to never boycott Israel, and his advertising revenue from state colleges and organizations immediately stopped. Mikkel Jordahl was part of a state-sponsored program in Sedona, Arizona offering legal representation for inmates. He refused to sign a document promising to never boycott Israel, and he was fired. Jordahl began offering free counsel while his case made its way through the courts.

Brian Hauss, an ACLU lawyer labels this as a First Amendment issue, and explains that boycotts (whether politically motivated or even something as foolish as a fan boycotting a sport or team) have long been a crucial part of this country's freedom, and a legal way to debate controversial issues. The 1955 Montgomery bus boycott lasted more than one year, and was a protest against racially segregated seating. This consumer-led boycott resulted in change for fairness and equity.

The difference here is that the legislation is politically driven to support Israel, a United States ally, in its occupation of Palestine. This tangled web brings antisemitism and political favoritism into the same argument. The BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) is a Palestinian movement with the intent to pressure Israel regarding its Palestinian occupation. The support of Israel may make sense for the federal government, but for a Palestinian mother living in the U. S. to lose her job because she won't give up her right to boycott the Israeli presence seems to make little sense.

Ms. Bacha's documentary is so effective because three smart people are able to clearly vocalize how this legislation requires them to carry an unfair burden. Watching Arkansas state senator Bart Hester explain his stance is painful and ludicrous, and offers little support for our trusting of politicians to understand issues prior to voting. This is certainly not a Republican versus Democrat issue, and it's a solid reminder of Americans' right to debate and disagree. Most of us agree that antisemitism is despicable, but freedoms are the fiber of the country. The use of music here is often annoying, but a tremendous amount of information is packed into these 70 minutes. It's quite an education.

Premiering March 1, 2023 on AppleTV and Prime Video.

My Happy Ending

finding yourself through cancer treatment
Greetings again from the darkness. When it comes to death, everyone hopes to go out on their own terms. Perhaps that's at an advanced age surrounded by family. Or maybe it's before the loss of physical or mental capacities. And then there are those who just want to pass quietly while sleeping. Whatever terms one might envision, the odds are we will have little say in when, where, or how. Co-directors Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon previously collaborated on THE FAREWELL PARTY (2014), and here they are working on Rona Tamir's adaptation of the stage play by Anat Gov.

Andie MacDowell stars as Julia Roth, a once famous actress who is attempting to receive medical treatment while remaining incognito. Arriving for her first chemotherapy session, she admits to not having told friends, family, or even her loyal assistant Nancy (Tamsen Grieg). The three women currently receiving chemo all recognize Julia, but it becomes clear that no one being treated for cancer cares much about spotting a celebrity. It's interesting to watch as Julia is brought down a notch or two from her arrogance as she realizes two things: these folks aren't impressed, and her own cancer is much more advanced than she originally thought.

This little chemo support group provides the heart of the film. Screen veteran Miriam Margolyes plays Judy, a retired teacher and lifelong single. Sally Phillips plays Mikey, a former rocker and the most optimistic of the group. Rakhee Thakrar plays Imaan, a young Muslim mother hoping to be cured so she can watch her kids grow up. They are all being treated by Tom Cullen, who they've nicknamed, "Dr Handsome". Julia's motivation is the upcoming wedding of her daughter, and the mood shifts quickly when Nancy shows up to "take care of this" for her boss.

There are times in life when we must be open to the help and guidance of others. Julia is a bit slow on the uptake, but soon enough, figures out that listening to those who have been going through what she's about to go through provides the insight she needs to make up her own mind ... finding a way of doing things on her own terms. Given the subject matter, the film from Granit and Maymon offers a good dose of humor, and it's also effective in reminding us that taking a "vision trip" can be the holiday that leads to clarity and making decisions that work best for ourselves.

Opens in theaters on February 24, 2023.

Cocaine Bear

a rip-roaring crowd pleaser!
Greetings again from the darkness. Dorothy Gale from Kansas may have been worried about 'Lions and Tigers and Bears", but even with a wicked witch and flying monkeys chasing her, she never faced anything as fierce Cocaine Bear! The story is inspired by true events in 1985 when a plane load of cocaine was inadvertently dropped over a national forest in Georgia. Screenwriter Jimmy Warden takes that premise and imagines what would happen if a ferocious bear had ingested mass quantities of the drug and then rampaged while on the ensuing high. Elizabeth Banks, known mostly for her acting (THE HUNGER GAMES), adds this to her growing list of directorial outings (CHARLIE'S ANGELS, PITCH PERFECT 2), and her latest is sure to find a place a cinematic lore.

The film opens with a reenactment of the plane and parachute mishap that caused the drugs to dump into the forest. A crazed Matthew Rhys ("The Americans") bonks his head on the skydiving exit, setting the stage for our bear to discover the scattered drug bricks. Of course, as we know from so many movies, TV shows, and national news reports, when a drug delivery goes sideways, bears aren't the only ones on the hunt. A local drug dealer played by Ray Liotta sends his son (Alden Ehrenreich, SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY, 2018) and henchman (O'Shea Jackson, son of Ice Cube) to retrieve the misplaced shipment ... all while a detective (Isiah Whitlock Jr) is on their trail.

Looking-for-love Park Ranger Liz (the always great Margot Martindale) envisions a romantic hike with the Park inspector she fancies (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), but her plans are spoiled when a frantic mom (Keri Russell, "The Americans") shows up looking for her missing daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince, THE FLORIDA PROJECT, 2017) and her child's friend Henry (Christian Convery, "Sweet Tooth"), who skipped school to explore the park. While all this is occurring, there is also a band of thugs wreaking havoc on park visitors, one of which (Aaron Holliday) gets looped in with the drug dealers. Once EMS workers (Scott Seiss and Kahyun Kim) show up, peak bear intensity is reached.

Now all of this may sound somewhat normal for a movie set up, but nothing prepares you for a rampaging bear desperately seeking that next hit of cocaine. I don't have the words to express just how 'off the rails' this thing goes (in a riotous and fun way). What I can tell you is that it's the ultimate crowd-pleaser, and certainly the most effective movie I've ever watched featuring a drug-fueled apex predator. I saw this in a crowded theater and the shared laughter and audience-reactions definitely added to the entertainment experience. Key elements have been omitted here because this is one of the wildest rides I've ever had in a movie theater ... and my hope is that many other fun-seekers will agree. Not only is there humor, adventure, action, and violence, but there are also some brilliant 'little touches' that elevate the story (a cute dog, a double-cross, a broken heart, etc).

For almost fifty years, THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975) has ruled the Midnight Movie circuit. There have been a few contenders along the way (THE ROOM, THE WARRIORS, EVIL DEAD), but this Elizabeth Banks movie may finally be the one that reignites the late night movie crowd with this raucous, thrilling trip as a coked-up bear (a bear that looks fantastic) runs amok through a national forest, desperate for the next hit. On a side note, this was the final film for Ray Liotta before he passed away in 2022. With a legacy of memorable characters in SOMETHING WILD, GOODFELLAS, and FIELD OF DREAMS, Liotta's final scene is quite a gut punch. COCAINE BEAR is a "hard R-rating" and not advisable for the 7- and 8-year-old kids brought along by their parents at the screening I attended.

Opens in theaters on February 23, 2023.


Rampling shines
Greetings again from the darkness. A tale as old as time. No, this first feature film from writer-director Matthew J Seville is not a new spin on 'Beauty and the Beast', however it is a story that has a familiar feel, and one made more meaningful through terrific acting and expert cinematography. We are engaged through characters rather than plot, and in fact, we grow to care about two of these people after initially finding both a bit abrasive.

Charlotte Rampling stars as Ruth, aging mom to Robert (an underutilized Marton Csokas). The two have never been especially close as Ruth's career as a war photographer allowed her to escape traditional parental duties. With a recent broken leg set in a cast and brace, Ruth finds her wings clipped and Robert senses an opportunity. By moving Ruth into the house during recovery, he can have his son, Sam (George Ferrier), help Nurse Sarah (Edith Poor). Sam is a party boy recently expelled from his boarding school and wants nothing to do with the convalescing grandmother he barely knows.

Dad's ulterior motive gets off to a rough start. Both Ruth and Sam are hard-headed and rebellious. In fact, it's these traits that end up drawing them closer. Ruth seems to survive on her all day gin-binges as her vile vocal spewings are those of a woman whose world has shrunk to the point of feeling captive. Sam is one who doesn't take direction well as he tries to hide his depression and grief driven by the death of his mother. Adding to this mess is Nurse Sarah's consistent attempts to inject some religion into Ruth before the bell tolls.

What we have is self-destruction times two. Ruth and Sam are rude and self-centered, and those shared traits end up thawing the icy relationship and improving their much different circumstances. George Ferrier is a relative newcomer from New Zealand, and he has the looks and on-screen charm to build a nice career. Of course, Charlotte Rampling is in her seventh decade of acting, and she instinctively knows how far she can push this character and still keep us engaged. It's a terrific performance that probably deserved an Oscar nomination. The cinematography of Marty Williams works in the enclosed spaces of the house, as well as the beautiful landscape when the characters head outdoors. Some of the scenes may be a bit too much 'on the nose', but the humor and acting allows for the desired impact.

Opens February 24, 2023.

An Cailín Ciúin

a quality Oscar nomination
Greetings again from the darkness. What a treat to watch a film that doesn't drown us in the obvious or spell out each character's precise thoughts. There are no explosions or action sequences, and these folks are ever so believable and grounded in life. With the depth of emotions relayed, and the unhurried pacing, it's remarkable that this is a first feature film. Writer-director Colm Bairead has based his debut on "Foster", a story by Claire Keegan.

It's 1981 and a mother (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh) is calling for her daughter ... young Cait is difficult to spot, blending in with nature in the pasture of her family's farm. Being nearly invisible is how Cait spends her days. Mom is just about ready to deliver a new addition to the already crowded home. One more is one too many mouths to feed since dad (Michael Patric) works the liquor harder than the farm. With no discussion, or even an explanation, Cait (approximately 9 or 10 years old) is unceremoniously dropped off at a relative's house for the summer. By this time, we've noticed she is extraordinarily quiet as she tries to remain unnoticed in her out-of-sync world - a home that lacks warmth and obvious love.

Cait is immediately struck by the kindness and tenderness shown by Eibhlin (Carrie Crowley), the woman at the new house who casts a fawning gaze at the child. Eibhlin's husband, Sean (Andrew Bennett), is not nearly as welcoming of the girl, and seems to avoid speaking directly to her initially. Where previously Cait lived a life of isolation, missing the adoration young kids expect from parents, she's quick to embrace Eibhlin's attention and chips in with chores around the farm.

For a while, our focus is on Cait and Eibhlin, but slowly it shifts as Sean gradually thaws from his early silent treatment. It's fascinating to watch the subtle ways in which Cait and Sean develop a bond. He even acknowledges her natural tendency towards silence by advising something along the lines of, 'many people have missed the opportunity to say nothing.' For her, it's been a survival instinct. To Sean, it's often a wise choice.

The work by Director of Photography, Kate McCullough, is exceptional. The shots of nature are lovely, but it's the way she shoots these evolving characters that really makes an impact. An example of the complexity embedded in this 'simple' story is how Eibhlin informs Cait that secrets within a home are a bad omen; so imagine Cait's surprise when the neighbor (Joan Sheehy) spills the dark secret held by Eibhlin and Sean.

Gaelic is the predominant language spoken herd, making subtitles a necessity for most of us. Mr. Bairead's film has received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language feature film, and although the story doesn't move at the pace we've grown accustomed to, the ending strikes us square in the heart as we realize Cait truly feels loved for the first time.

Opens in theaters on February 24, 2023.


the Bronte mystery
Greetings again from the darkness. These days, it seems like we know entirely too much about the personal and professional lives of writers, actors ... well, just about everyone. Of course, it wasn't always like that. And taking that to an extreme is the all-too-brief life of Emily Bronte. Imagine if someone wrote a book today as popular and terrific as "Wuthering Heights". We would likely know the name of their pet, their spouse, and where they eat lunch. For Emily Bronte, the details are not only scarce, but also not totally trustworthy, given that much of it comes from her older sister who had a touch of envy, or at least a competitive edge.

Frances O'Connor (known as an actor in such films as AI: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE and MANSFIELD PARK) chose a dramatic imagining of Emily's life as her first feature film as writer-director. Emma Mackey (DEATH ON THE NILE, 2022) stars as Emily Bronte, and turns in a really nice and believable performance as someone whom we can only imagine her life in the 19th century. The reputation is that of someone who was socially awkward, and a bit of a sickly recluse. We do know that she died at age 30. We can also relate to the opening scene when Charlotte asks an ill Emily "How did you write it?" (referring to "Wuthering Heights").

In fact, filmmaker O'Connor likely based her entire script on that question, and what she presents is quite interesting - regardless of how accurate it might (or might not) be. Emily and her younger sister Anne (Amelia Gething) spend days constructing stories together, and then Emily takes it further by writing poetry. As the eldest sibling, Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) is the favorite of their father (Adrian Dunbar), a priest at the local church. Emily is known as "the strange one", despite her beautiful piano playing, and mostly secret writing skills.

Emily and her brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead, DUNKIRK, 2017) have an unusual bond. He's a troubled young man weakened in spirit by spirits (the alcoholic kind). All of the dynamics shift quickly when William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, MR MALCOLM'S LIST, 2022) arrives as the new curate. His sermons are a kind of poetry and this intrigues all Bronte sisters, especially Emily. As Weightman teaches her French, their relationship transforms from one of butting heads to one of clandestine intimacy ... and both are changed.

Although the film does explore the effect of the mother's previous death, in real life, this family faced even more grief from death ... including Emily's at age 30. The sibling rivalry is a believable aspect, as Emily wrote "Wuthering Heights" and Charlotte wrote "Jane Eyre" (and a portion of "Emma"). With such a legacy, we have been left to wonder what became of Emily's other writings, and Ms. O'Connor offers up one idea. The proof of Emily's brilliance and talent is on the page for all to read, however, we will never truly know her inspirations and desires. Kudos to Frances O'Connor and Emma Mackey for filling in the gap ... even if we will never know how close or far from the truth they landed.

Opening February 17, 2023.


knock knock - Marlowe who?
Greetings again from the darkness. The great Raymond Chandler created the now iconic Private Investigator, Philip Marlowe. Over many years, we have gotten to know Marlowe through novels and film adaptations. Actors as varied as Humphrey Bogart, Robert Montgomery, Dick Powell, Robert Mitchum, and Elliott Gould have played the cynical P. I., and now Oscar winning writer-director Neil Jordan (THE CRYING GAME, 1996) has added Liam Neeson to the list. Oscar winning writer William Monahan (THE DEPARTED, 2006) adapted the screenplay from John Banville's (writing as Benjamin Black) 2014 novel, "The Black-Eyed Blonde".

It's 1939 in Los Angeles when Clare Cavendish (Diane Kruger) strolls into Marlowe's (Neeson) office and hires him to find Nico Peterson (Francois Arnaud). Simple enough, only there's a catch (of course): Nico has been declared dead and the body identified by a relative. Adding to the intrigue (of course) is Clare (she prefers to be called Cavendish) herself, the daughter of powerful former film star Dorothy Cavendish (played by two-time Oscar winner Jessica Lange, TOOTSIE, BLUE SKY). As you would expect, the case leads Marlowe to cross paths with many 'bad' folks and a few instances of danger, which he (of course) manages to maneuver or outmaneuver.

The supporting cast is strong and includes Colm Meaney, Alan Cumming (with a southern accent?), Danny Huston (a nod to his father's noir classic CHINATOWN?), and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. A couple of things are unfortunately quite clear. First, every noir cliché and trope is included here; and second, Liam Neeson is not the guy to pull off the Marlowe role - unless it was a full-on parody, in which case, he might have been a better fit. If he has put forth any effort into the role, it was apparently to ensure that his Marlowe is the least memorable one ever. There is no personal stamp on the role, and because of that, nothing really clicks here.

On the upside, the set decorations and costumes are divine. The film has the right look, but just brings nothing new or exciting to one of my favorite genres. It's a throwback to hard-boiled detective crime stories of the 1940's without the grit or charm. Marlowe first appeared in Raymond Chandler's 1939 novel, "The Big Sleep", and most iterations bring something new to the character or story. Perhaps the only thing director Jordan serves here is a shootout near the end. It's more drawn out and noisy than what we would have seen 80 years ago, and it's probably the right choice for today's audience.

Opens in theaters on February 15, 2023.

Of an Age

a quickly formed bond can last
Greetings again from the darkness. One of my (many) pet peeves involves movies where we are supposed to believe a couple finds eternal love after barely spending any time together. Now I fully understand some artistic license must be taken in love stories, as there are only a couple of hours to work with, but the challenge is making the audience believe it. For the films that do it right, it's a thing of beauty.

Macedonian-Australian writer-director Goran Stolevski handles this expertly in his first film since the excellent (and much different) YOU WON'T BE ALONE (2022). A frenetic opening pace has 17 year old Kol (Elias Anton) panicking when his best friend Ebony (Hattie Hook in her first feature) phones after a wild night of partying. The two are supposed to be in the finals of an amateur ballroom dancing contest. Kol gets a ride from Ebony's older brother Adam (Thom Green), and as the two search for Ebony, a natural bond begins as easy conversation covers numerous topics. When Adam matter-of-factly admits he's gay, Kol's nervous energy shifts into overdrive.

This bond only has a 24-hour window to blossom, as Adam is headed to South America for graduate studies. But what a 24-hour period it is. The two men continually cross paths, and so much is conveyed with very few spoken words. Glances, body language, and eye-contact are all that's needed. That opening period takes place in 1999, and we then jump ahead to 2010. My, how time and age changes things ... and yet, doesn't.

We often see the fallout from unrequited love, but what of 'partially' requited love? Few films have better captured longing and emotional pain. We feel the aching and see it on Adam and Kol. Many scenes take place in a car, adding to the closeness and feeling of magnetic pull. For me, director Stolevski utilizes a few too many close-ups, although the approach does add to the intensity of some moments. The film may not be heavy on plot, but the emotions are strong enough to keep us invested.

Opens in theaters on February 10 and expands on February 17, 2023.


religion plus horror
Greetings again from the darkness. Horror films and religion are a match made in heaven ... so to speak. The linking of demonic possession and religious artifacts pre-dates cinema, and yet has long been a key element on the big screen. The effect of the cross on Dracula is one example, and of course, the priest visiting young Regan in THE EXORCIST is one for the ages. So many other examples exist that entire books have been written on the topic. It's because of this history that we quickly accept the setting and groundwork of this latest from writer-director Christopher Smith (TRIANGLE, 2009) and co-writer Laurie Cook.

Optometrist Grace (Jena Malone) lives alone with her cat when she is notified that her brother (Steffan Cennydd), a priest, is dead. Supposedly he killed a senior priest before committing suicide. Grace is immediately suspicious of the story and decides to conduct her own investigation. She travels to the convent, located on the edge of an oceanside cliff in a remote area of Scotland, where she discusses the case with Detective Harris (Thoren Ferguson). They both have serious doubts that Mother Superior's (Janet Suzman) chronicle of events is accurate.

Father Romero (Danny Huston) arrives on assignment from the Vatican in order to re-consecrate the convent, and to do so, he must ensure that the truth in the case is disclosed. Adding an element is Grace's admission to being "indifferent" towards God, which of course, makes her a target of the nuns, including a creepy "peek-a-boo" nun played by Elidih Fisher.

The initial set up with Grace and her arrival are extremely well done, and Ms. Malone proves yet again why she has long been a favorite. The good vs evil stage is set, and then filmmaker Smith begins the twists and misdirection. Flashbacks to Grace's childhood are a bit heavy-handed and used to spell out a bit too much, and some of these are simply too obvious and generate a few too many eye-rolls. Mr. Huston is always solid in whatever supporting role he plays, but fans of Jena Malone will likely be somewhat disappointed in a movie that doesn't take full advantage of her presence. Regardless of that, the Scotland countryside is shown in its full glory and that's quite a sight. Just don't expect as much from a horror movie that's just trying too hard.

In theaters beginning February 10, 2023.

Somebody I Used to Know

misguided dessert expert
Greetings again from the darkness. As consistently as January brings horror films, we can count on February to deliver Romantic Comedies released around Valentine's Day. Although, these days, even rom-coms tend to arrive carrying the weight of social messaging wrapped in inclusion, with a concerted effort to avoid ruffling feathers and hurting feelings. The husband and wife writing team of Dave Franco and Alison Brie, with Franco directing and Brie in a lead role, have managed to play by the new rules and still deliver a watchable film - albeit one that I found more sad than comedic.

Ally (Alison Brie, THE POST, "Mad Men") is a showrunner/producer of a dessert-centric reality TV show. Season three has just wrapped, and Ally has been informed her show will not be renewed. As with any career-minded person, Ally is devastated and heads home to visit her mother and clear her head. The hometown she left a decade ago to chase her dream of being a documentary filmmaker in Los Angeles is the 'always Christmas' town of Leavenworth in Washington state. An awkward intrusion on her mother (Julie Hagerty) sends Ally to the local bar where she bumps into the former flame she dumped to purse those doc dreams.

Ally and Sean (Jay Ellis, TOP GUN: MAVERICK, 2022) quickly fall into the comfort zone of a long ago relationship, and spend the night frolicking about the town. Sean does refuse the intimate offer from Ally, which leads her to blindly stumble into his engagement weekend the next day. Yep, it's a detail Sean conveniently forgot to mention during their wild night, and now Ally is face to face with Cassidy (Kiersey Clemons, ANTEBELLUM, 2020) and Sean's entire family. His mother's (Olga Merediz) request for Ally to be the wedding videographer is just the opening Ally needs to begin her battle plan of stopping the wedding.

It's at this point where we can't help but think of MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING (1997), and the writers take this head-on with a mention. We can't tell if Ally thinks she can win back Sean or if she is merely taking out her frustrations in recognizing what she turned down years ago when she chose career of Sean. The tone begins to shift when Ally sees Cassidy performing with her punk rock band, and as the two women talk to each other, it becomes clear that Ally views Cassidy as a younger version of herself. Cassidy even discloses that her bisexuality caused the estrangement with her closed-minded parents. So how does one undermine the wedding of another who isn't so bad after all?

Also involved are Ally's old best friend Benny (Brie's "Community" co-star Danny Pudi), who injects some humor and tries to prevent her meddling, and Sean's stepbrother played by Haley Joel Osment, who tosses out a Brendan Fraser reference ... actually kind of funny, especially in comparison to the Jeremy Renner joke that will likely cause mass cringing. Most of the characters are grounded enough that it's a difference from many rom-coms, but we do get the feeling a few times that much effort was put forth in creating something outside the normal tropes, rather than the typical "aww, how sweet" moments we are usually subjected to in this genre.

Dave Franco is the younger brother of James Franco, and is a frequent actor who previously directed THE RENTAL (2020), one that varies substantially from this one. Alison Brie is best known for her acting roles, but also previously wrote HORSE GIRL (2020) and SPIN ME ROUND (2022). Here, she doesn't shy away from a character that we initially pull for, yet end up kind of annoyed with. It's not a typical break-up movie, or sappy romance, or he/she is 'the one' story. Instead, it draws on mean girl tendencies, jealousies, and regrets ... yet also delivers the message of staying true to one's self. As a compliment, it can be said that the film cannot be lumped in with our usual Valentine's Day saccharine.

Opens in theaters on February 10, 2023.


using her wits during a misadventure
Greetings again from the darkness. With a string of short films to his credit, Norwegian writer-director Eirik Tveiten had to wait patiently during the pandemic for the release of his latest. That patience was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for Best Live Action Short Film.

Ebba (Sigrid Kandal Husjord) is waiting for the tram on a frigid, snowy evening. When the tram arrives at her stop, the driver hops off for his break, but tells Ebba that she is not allowed to wait for him on the tram. Rather than risk frostbite, Ebba sneaks onto the tram. The trouble begins when she starts pushing buttons in an attempt to get the door closed. As you probably guess, she inadvertently starts the engine, and soon, Ebba is driving the tram and making its scheduled stops.

This opening is actually a clever misdirection. It serves up the vibe of a pending comedy-of-errors, however, the tone shifts pretty quickly ... as must happen on a short film. In fact, things turn pretty dark and Ebba is faced with a tough decision in regards to one of the passengers. Although the film is only a few minutes long, we sense Ebba's frustration and her personal history plays a distinct role in her reaction to how things play out. A terrific performance from Sigrid Kandal Husjord highlights this thought-provoking short film from director Eirik Tveiten. The Oscar nom is well-earned.


Nighy perfection
Greetings again from the darkness. That uneasy feeling will likely never fade for me ... the anxiety when one of the classic movies of yesteryear gets a remake from a contemporary filmmaker with their own vision. Sometimes the new version is a respected tribute to the original, while other times, the director believes they can improve on the classic. In this case, director Oliver Hermanus and screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro (THE REMAINS OF THE DAY, 1993) clearly have love for Akira Kurosawa's IKIRU (1952), one of the true classics of cinema. Moving the setting from Japan to 1953 England proves an easy transition thanks to a remarkable lead performance.

After the nostalgic, retro-styled opening credits, we learn about Williams (the always fascinating Bill Nighy), a manager in the Public Works Department. He's a stoic man of discipline - the kind his staff can set their watches by. In fact, it the department and staff seem to be a perfect example of perfected bureaucratic logjam. Some of our early insight into Williams comes from Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp), the new hire just learning the ropes. By the time Williams heads to his doctor's appointment, we have a good feel for what a repressed creature of habit he is. This allows us to fully appreciate Nighy's performance after Williams is diagnosed with a terminal illness.

As we have seen in many 'cancer dramas', upon receiving the bleak news, Williams decides to cut loose with a rare (maybe first ever) wild night on the town. He befriends Sutherland (Tom Burke, THE SOUVENIR: PART 1), a writer who acts as a guide through the pubs and becomes the first person to whom Williams discloses his state ... a disclosure he chooses not to make to his own self-centered son. Next, Williams begins his first ever search for life ... a way to actually live, rather than merely exist. This leads him to strike up an awkward friendship with Margaret Harris (Aimee Lee Wood, THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN, 2021), a former Public Works staffer who left the stifling work environment.

Ms. Harris is very forthcoming with Williams and even admits to giving him a most telling and uncomplimentary nickname. The gentleman is fascinated by Ms. Harris' spirit and seems to come more alive just being around her. Of course, this raises eyebrows amongst the judgmental masses. Williams is inspired by her and his improved outlook, and this makes a difference at work where he approves a local project that had been previously ignored. A playground in the poorer section of town offers a chance for Williams to leave his mark, while also setting the future tone of the department.

It's unusual for a film to kill off the main character so soon during the story, but this allows the third act to provide commentary on legacy and the aftermath of one's death. Sometimes the little things we do matter, and they make up the legacy we leave. Nighy's Oscar nominated performance is the epitome of nuance. His understated mannerisms display the opposite of living life on the edge. He also tamps down his usual cheekiness to capture the essence of Williams. The sweeping score from Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch perfectly captures the tone, and the film reminds us that the meaning of our life is whatever we make it.


daughter viewing father-daughter
Greetings again from the darkness. There are two reasons I was excited to see Paul Mescal nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in this film. First, he deserved it. Secondly, it offers hope that more people will seek out this terrific, albeit heartbreaking, debut feature film from writer-director Charlotte Wells.

Calum (Paul Mescal, THE LOST DAUGHTER, 2021) takes his 11-year-old daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio) on a vacation to a resort in Turkey, where they swim and frolic in the sun. Even though she lives with her mother, Sophie and her dad have a close bond. She's a very observant and perceptive girl, which is crucial given that Calum is a loving and caring dad, but he's also displaying some disturbing signs of depression. What's terrific here is that Sophie is smart, but not over-the-top; while Calum is a good dad, but not flawless. In other words, these are two normal people spending time together.

There is a sadness to Calum, even though he is patient and charming. He thinks he hides more from Sophie than he actually does. His calm demeanor on the outside is clearly hiding burning emotions that his tai chi can't cover. While Calum is teetering in life, Sophie is teetering between independence and being daddy's girl. She recognizes his anxiety but doesn't yet possess the savvy or experience to know what it means - although she states this gem, "It's nice that we share the same sky." What a lovely sentiment.

The vacation is set in the 1990's, however the twist served by filmmaker Wells is that adult Sophie (played in glimpses by Celia Rowlson-Hall) is reminiscing some twenty years in the future by re-watching the camcorder tapes from that vacation. She's looking back with a different filter on what she experienced with her dad ... searching for additional insight to the man she so adored. Sophie has visions of watching her dad on the dance floor as "Under Pressure" blasts under the strobe lights. This prevents her (or us) from interpreting these as memories of bliss. Rather it's her search for meaning. Charlotte Wells drew inspiration for this story from her own childhood vacation with her dad. This is the first screen appearance for young Frankie Corio, but she perfectly captures the close relationship with dad. As movie lovers, we can only hope this is the start of a special story-telling career for Charlotte Wells, but even if this is her peak, it's a gem few ever match.

Life Upside Down

yet another COVID movie
Greetings again from the darkness. When watching and reviewing films, I strive to be objective and observant, while putting some thought into what the creator(s) hoped to achieve with the project. However, this is my upfront disclosure that it's January 2023 and I seem to have had my fill of 'Pandemic movies.' That statement is not meant as an affront to writer-director Cecilia Miniucchi or the cast in this film - some of whom are extremely talented. Instead, it's my personal confession that, over the past couple of years, I've seen enough movies where creative photography was used to highlight the misery we all faced during the recent pandemic lockdowns. This particular movie does make an effort to comment more specifically on how differently the upper-middle class dealt with the challenges.

It opens in a Los Angeles art gallery in October 2019, as art dealer Jonathan (Bob Odenkirk, "Better Call Saul") sneaks in a wham-bam with his mistress Clarissa (Radha Mitchell), just as his wife Sue (Jeanie Lim) shows up. After re-adjusting her wardrobe, Clarissa tries to encourage her well-off friend Paul (Danny Huston) to purchase one of the paintings on display in Jonathan's gallery. This sequence is relatively short, but we learn much about the key players and their personalities.

We then flash forward a few months to March 2020 when the lockdowns kick in, and COVID makes masks and isolation a part of life. Since Clarissa is a professor, we get a taste of online teaching through Zoom. We are told that FaceTime is our virtual self being interpreted by Wi-Fi, although these technological features provided the only form of socialization and connection for so many people over months. "Stay safe and sane" became our standard and recognized send-off rather than "have a nice day." As a single woman, Clarissa is always available for FaceTime and texts from Jonathan, who contrastingly, tries to steal a moment or two from his ever-present wife while taking out the trash or some other menial task that might provide some space. And it's that space and time apart that slowly changes the dynamics of a hot relationship built on the physical aspect. As the calendar pushes forward, Jonathan becomes stressed over pending financial disaster, and the possibility of losing his identity tied to the gallery. This worries him more than Clarissa's loneliness (or birthday).

Paul, a smug, quasi-intellectual writer, is working on his next book and his inability to connect with his younger wife Rita (Rosie Fellner) exacerbates their own intimacy issues, sending his possible art purchase from Jonathan to the back burner. It's during this time where Clarissa takes notice of Darius (Cyrus Pahlavi), her unusual tenant who also is a bit lonely (and recognizes an opportunity).

These characters and filmmaker Miniucchi teach us that "there is no perfect love", and mostly seem to reinforce two things: human connection is vital to our emotional well-being, and the entitled among us are not immune to the effects of isolation, even if they are in a better position to handle it. We've seen it all before, however, "be that as it may ..." Opens on January 27, 2023.


Greetings again from the darkness. Coming of age stories are immensely popular in literature and cinema. And why not? We all go through the stages (some more effectively than others). Writer-director Lukas Dhont is no stranger to backlash and criticism after his 2018 feature film debut, GIRL, and the approach he took on transgender issues. This time the topic is different, yet his approach still opens him up to additional criticism. However, if the viewer isn't on a quest for controversy, this story from Dhont and co-writer Angelo Tissens is quite touching.

Leo (Eden Dambine) and Remi (Gustav De Waele) are 13-year-old best friends. The thing we notice immediately is that their bond is unusually close, even for adolescent buddies. They each seem complete only when in the presence of the other. Remi is a very sensitive young man who excels at playing oboe on the school stage as he's cheered on by Leo.

Of course we all know that 13-year-old classmates are not known for tact and diplomacy, and soon the biting comments find flesh (so to speak). Remi mostly pays no mind to the cracks, but Leo starts to question the friendship. He seeks out other connections, and even finds a way to appear more macho, despite his androgynous appearance and mannerisms.

Remarkably, both of these young men are first time actors. Mr. Dambine has an especially appealing screen presence. Also effective are Emilie Dequenne and Lea Drucker as the boys' mothers, yet mostly the focus her is on the boys and how pure their emotions are until corrupted by others. Also at the forefront is a theme of learning to deal with loss and guilt, even at a young age. It can easy to dismiss such films as manipulative, yet sometimes the writing and acting are such that the story strikes the right note. That's what filmmaker Lukas Dhont has done here, and he's rewarded Belgium with an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film.

Opening in limited theaters on January 27, 2023.

See all reviews