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The Half of It

The best romantic comedy out there. It's that good.
"The good thing about being different is that no one expects you to be like them." Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis)

The thing about teen comedies is that everyone expects them to be the same, as I did when my literate friend, Mindy, enthusiastically recommended Netflix's new teen romance, The Half of It. I thought she might be too enthusiastic, but then so do I tend to be on occasion. However, Mindy is "totally" right, no bad scene exists in this drama.

Let me warn the rest of the adult population that this comedy may be the definitive teen statement for us on the difficulty of finding love, and the courage it takes, and the mess it will be no matter how it is resolved. And how worthy that statement is for all human beings, not just teens. And how much being determined is a value for success in life.

Ellie is a bright Asian-American senior in a small NY State town with one railroad track (if you need metaphor for the difficulty of being different, much less a creative teen in a small town). A loner who writes papers for less-gifted students (think Cyrano), Ellie writes love notes to his own Roxanne for Paul (Daniel Diemer), while Ellie's feelings for his love, Aster (Alexxis Lemire), flourish. These are not the only characters for whom Cupid is aiding their search for the other half as the Greeks thought we are all doing, some for the similar half even.

2018's Love, Simon could try to compete but will lose, as most others will, because writer/director Alice WU keeps her eye on the ball of romance for any generation. Although football games and bimbos abound, smart teens like Ellie and Aster (Paul is just a nice guy meant to make sausage) keep their eyes on the ultimate victory-college. That single train will take them right there if they work for it as intensely as they do for love.

Wu works in the ending of Casablanca (my fave romance) to explain the love-is-tough motif. Whether two men, two women, or one woman and one man walk into the fog, it's love that's on the other side. Think about our gift to enjoy a masterful romance like The Other Half at a time when all we have are brightly lit screens to warm us.

Watch this brilliant piece of cinema, a potent example of just how good a film can be in tumultuous times. Thank you, Alice Wu, Leah Lewis, and Netflix.

The Painter and the Thief

Compassion and love and empathy in one challenging documentary. That's art.
A photo-realist painter asks to do a portrait of the thief who stole her masterpiece from an Oslo museum. He complies and some strange variation of Stockholm emerges, tats and all. The Painter and Thief is a documentary like none you have seen before-the crime is real, and the principles are the originals. Weird and complicated as the real crime was, this documentary beats it by a Louvre mile.

Barbora Kysilkova had been a minor Czech photo realism star now settled in Norway. When Karl Bertil-Nordland steals two of her paintings, he is distraught enough that to agree to the portrait. Why she needs to do it would confuse a convention of Freudians, why he does is inscrutable because he can't even remember why he committed it in the first place. Or rather, he doesn't offer his drug intake as excuse.

The Painter and the Thief eschews the usual documentary over- analysis of subjects because there is not an iota of chance that either understands their reasons. As far as the realism of a documentary, like Christopher Nolan, director Benjamin Ree skillfully upends the usual chronology and logic to play with their time together and ours to figure out the real reason this is happening.

Not that we ever get to that point. Bertil turns out to be much more than an addled addict obsessed with an artist, and in that resolution of character, the film takes off into the abstract world of artistic intent, inspiration, an truth. Bertil's untutored passion for artistic expression (try to take your eyes off his tats-you can't because like his disoriented life, there appears to be no reason for the designs until he starts to explain them). Same with the film, so keep reading good critics if you want to find Ree's labyrinth.

Perhaps this film is memorable because it looks like boilerplate docudrama and it isn't or because it looks like art and it is actually life not completely understood. If you are reading this review, you'll be happy to be seduced by the ineffability of art. This is not a documentary; it is art.

Lucky Grandma

Small yet powerful lighthearted grandma gangster story in Chinatown.
Sometime you just can't put China away and hope it will forget how powerful a force it is on earth. Lucky Grandma is set in NYC's Chinatown while Polanski's Chinatown ends on the opposite coast, unifying so to speak. A family's concern about the welfare of Grandma (Tsai Chin) after Grandpa's death is exacerbated by her finding a load of mobster money after her visit to a Casino. The gangsters want it back, and she's her smoking, feisty little self not willingly to give anything to anyone.

Some stereotypes crop up like the recalcitrant grandma, the feckless mobsters, and the way too deferential family. Best of all is her very big bodyguard, Big Pong (whom you would expect is loveable, and he is.) While the tight little drama allows major players to face down the mob, mostly the family itself comes up with ways to keep things moving in the case of the immoveable grand mom. If you feel you may have met some of the eccentrics before, you have, in the memorable characters out of The Coen Brothers, whom freshman director Sasie Sealy acknowledges as a big influence.

Although China cannot downplay the effects of its virus activity, we are aware that like Corona, the virus has no firm idea from whence it came or where it will end.

Even the music! Andrew Orkin's jazz score is a unifier that would fit right in anywhere. While this Chinatown promises a melancholy return to good practices and loving families, we know better. For a strong small film to enjoy, those who have had a wisecracking grandma can remember once more an audience global and powerful.

Working Man

it starts slow; then it becomes memorable. A gem.
A new on-demand film, Working Man, is as moving as the biggest thriller, say Extraction, as you will see this troubled mid-section of our century. Everything is minimalist, making the simple story of a simple man, Allery (Peter Gerety) and his fellow factory workers not simple at all.

It contains the fabulous elements of a wishful narrative still rooted in the realities of a crippled economy and fractured lives. Stay with the first half hour, for it is Seinfeld in a Chicago burb with no more factories, and few laughs, because nothing happens but the repetition of a man walking to work each day where there is no work.

Allery is gently living a fantasy, but he is aided by the charismatic former worker, Walt (Billy Brown), stirring up fellow workers to join them in protest by sneaking into the factory and working on incomplete orders. The media makes it difficult to oust these protestors, who don't profit from their trespassing.

In addition to the mounting tension, and first-time writer/director Robert Jury keeps it ratcheting up nicely, is Allery's lumbering marriage to Iola (Talia Shire), whom he a few years ago spiritually left after a family tragedy. The depiction of their dying relationship is as good as you will get for insight in how things can go wrong.

The real thrust of the film is to see Allery become a reluctant leader and Walter become more than a cohort. The growing public attention for the community is a good thing considering how cowed and secluded they had become. Confrontations on all sides are a given, and Jury makes them plausible and welcomed. This is the story of how people cope with unemployment in times when everyone is complicit and, for instance, a virus upends every life.

Gerety, a pint-sized Paul Sorvino, will break your heart with his sincerity and his interior loneliness because this is a film about what goes on inside, not so much out.


A sweet film about the friendship between a boy and a man. Dennehy has rarely been better.
"Drive a little slower. Take your time. Take a good look at stuff." Del (Brian Dennehy)

Driveways is an internet film taking its time letting us know that friendship and love have no racial or age boundaries. We've seen this motif before: 8-year-old Cody befriends laconic octogenarian neighbor Del (it's not too much Gran Torino or UP) with the least sentimentality among the three and the least dialogue.

Yet, the love that envelops them, even with Cody's single Asian-American mom, Kathy (Hong Chau), who is not a stirring mother, is so unprepossessing that like Cody at his 9th birthday, life has happened in small increments, almost imperceptibly. The life including bullying kids and cleaning up a recently-deceased Aunt's mess of a home takes on a romantic sheen as the duo experience kindly neighbors and a comfortably-cleaned home.

In a small way it's like Seinfeld without the laughs-it's about nothing or rather the little things of life that begin to make up a happy life. Firecrackers in the backyard by the bully boys seem more like a celebration of a new life for Kathy and Cody than a bombardment. It's also a fine addition to the coming-of-age canon, a staple from Star Wars through Driveways.

It's one of Brian Dennehy's last roles (he recently died), but one of his finest because it doesn't require him to use his former football- player heft or his menacing sheriff mien as in First Blood. The friendship between Cody and veteran Del is the real deal. Del has one nostalgic speech that you wish more of because he is talking, as in the opening quote, about enjoying the small parts of life whether you're 8 or 80.

"Small" as in Driveways, where the titular constructions are more than the separation between suburban homes-they're what binds them.


Interesting evening with minimalist drama/sci-fi.
"I hope life on earth is everything you remember it to be." Computer Gerty (voice of Kevin Spacey)

Director Duncan Jones's Moon takes a traditional sci-fi story of a lonely astronaut, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), as it was in Kubrick's 2001 and Soderberg's Solaris, and reworks it as a much simpler story of man surviving with his wit and perseverance. Although the CGI is basic and the exterior sets toy-like, it's the interiority that sparkles with Sam giving the full humanly dose of a man after 3 years mining for energy on the dark side of the moon

The energy company for whom he works is not transparent, for Sam's messages to his wife, Tess (Dominique McEllogott) seem to have gone nowhere and the messages from her peculiarly circumspect. As Sam interacts with Gerty (Hal anyone?), Sam encounters complications both good and bad. This half of the story is realistic and generally warm although Sam is getting edgy to return to family.

It's when the clone motif appears that the story gets more interesting and more confusing as we learn who is real, who is clone and more importantly how is Sam # 1 going to get home? Original Sam is deteriorating, new Sam is cocky, and the rescue team arriving soon will not be happy about the clone activity.

Actually, it's not all that complicated, and it is full of commonplace challenges for spaceman Sam. Having dealt with computer Hal in 2001, the audience is familiar with the shenanigans necessary to outsmart it, but here the longing for home outstrips the cold loneliness of a Hal's world.

The minimalist Moon does the survivalist theme well because nothing distracts us from Sam's quest to wrap up his stay and go home. That home-bound motif is a staple of sci-fi that Moon does well:

"You're not going anywhere! You know you've been up here too long man; you've lost your marbles. Whuddya think, that Tess is back home waiting for you on the sofa in lingerie? What about the original Sam, Uh?" Sam #2.

Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold

A writing genius in her good and bad times. Quite a story!
"I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not." - Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1968

Iconic writer Joan Didion kept this philosophy throughout her writing and her life: a sense that the past infuses the present, the ones we love affect us sometimes after they are gone, and even politics has its dramatic and poetic underbelly. The documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, directed by her nephew Griffin Dunne, shows these traits to be true with a poignancy only a close relative could depict.

Driven as Sommer Marie and I were by our disappointment on It's Movie Time about the film adaptation of her political novel, The Last Thing He Wanted, I revisited her life in this documentary, renewed by remembering her achievement from Slouching Toward Bethlehem in 1967 to her more recent reflections on her husband's and daughter's deaths. She has remained honest and caring, wistful and trenchant, about loss for herself and for her world. No one is surprised that she was a first in 1991 to write that the Central Park Five had been wrongfully convicted.

This documentary will drive you to read about her life in California and New York, fiction and non-fiction leading to sociopath portraits that are a staple of American fiction presaging worse times for America. Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold is a documentary worth seeing just as her works are worth reading. She is America with a jaundiced but loving eye. Don't let her frail mien deceive you-she is every bit worthy of the age she depicts.

"We all remember what we need to remember." A Book of Common Prayer, Joan Didion.


An indie gem, small but powerful like its heroine.
"Relationships are kind of like riding a bull. You hang on for dear life and sometimes you get a little buck here and there but you get back on." Katy Perry

With all the buzz about realty, it's a joy to see real "reality" in a heartening independent film about rural rodeo and rural poverty in Texas without feeling the least bit cheated that you wasted your streaming cash or that you didn't get a full measure of the toughness of riding bulls and the challenge of surviving outside the fences. As if riding a bull were not the most dangerous game in town! Surviving life is.

Fifteen-year old Kris (Amber Havard-a newbie with loads of understated talent) is a sweetheart of a daughter, whose mom is in prison. She's quiet but wanting to learn, especially from 40-something wrangler-neighbor Abe (Rob Morgan), a seasoned Black cowboy who saves riders from bulls in the ring after the cowboys fall: "How do you know when a rider's about to fall off," asks Kris. "When his head hits the ground," responds Abe. Now that's reality.

Although the speeches are short and the action except for the bulls is minimal, a casual feeling pervades of experiencing another kind of world, i.e., poverty and the rodeo, as well as a worthy teen making some bad decisions but riding toward good ones. That she may someday ride a bull or bucking bronco may be inevitable-she's that smart, determined, and able.

Meanwhile enjoy being with her in her low-key world, where even poverty can't put a good girl down. It's a world writer-director Annie Silverstein and writer-husband Johnny McAllister give us in quiet, honest tones (the sound track's country tunes are perfect). Immersing us in other worlds is what movies do. These days streaming VOD like this is a gift and a virus-balm for us extraverts and for exploring introverts.

Reality check: After being caught early on with friends invading Abe's home, Kris implores the cops: "Can't you just take me to juvie?"


A modest thriller to pass the time with, nothing more.
"You want this thing to make some kind of sense? That's not the world." Detective Ray Archer (Al Pacino)

He's right: The Hangman, now streaming on Netflix, doesn't make a whole lot of sense either, nor does the dialogue given to that Oscar winner came anywhere near Pacino's capability. Early on in this tepid serial-killer-police procedural, Archer's vintage car is sideswiped, so he pursues the swiper despite warnings that he may have a bomb, to which pursuer Ray replies, "Sunovabitch just ruined my car."

That's the best I can come up with for smart lines in this "Seven" wannabe, and it's a dumb line and response to a lethal situation that a retired cop should instinctually back away from. Yet, Pacino didn't back away from this weak thriller either, so life imitates art.

Although a serial killer with a pattern of hanging his victims and carving signs on their carcasses might incite thoughts of Silence of the Lambs, Hangman feels more like Mary Had a Little Lamb with music by the numbers. Although Karl Urban as Pacino's partner Det. Will Ruiney tries his best to bring heft, and he would be capable in any other movie with that square jaw and imposing height, but alas here is his best line: "Have you noticed anything out of the ordinary?"

It gets better when they're joined by a visiting journalist, Christi (Brittany Snow), who parries back to inquiries about her eligibility for this dangerous job, "I've been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize." No actor gets off well except maybe wheelchair-bound, tough Captain Watson (Sarah Shahi), who is the smartest cop in the room even if her character is mistakenly underdeveloped.

Although the drama has moments of success as the cops figure the Hangman's pattern, such bright scenes are eclipsed by the formulaic chases and false leads. Thus, if you don't mind anticipating the reveals and can put up with inane dialogue, this thriller will keep you occupied for 98 min while the real killer is outside your room providing ample bodies per day until the real detectives, the scientists, figure out a way to stop it.

Netflix is on our side through it all, wins and losses.

The Incredible Jessica James

Of course you will like her.
"Of course you like me. Everybody does. I'm freaking dope." Jessica James (Jessica Williams)

Of course you will like the character Jessica as much as you like the actress Jessica Williams because Williams is a screen natural. She's a commanding presence just as Greta Gerwig is playing a 20 something trying to make it in the big city.

In the case of The Incredible Jessica James, Jess is 25 and trying to get a play accepted despite the numerous rejections that would have sent a lesser woman back to Ohio. Her singular contribution in life is teaching public school kids acting for a non-profit. She's caring and effective with the kids but still longing to stage a play in the city.

Having just split up with the charming Damon (LaKeith Stanfield), she connects gently with the more charming Boone (Chris O'Dowd), who reads all of her plays and responds favorably. Unlike other city girls such as in Lena Dunham's Girls or Issa Rae's Insecure, Jess is at peace most of the time, kind and charismatic, a character to root for with less than an hour and a half of comedy drama time.

In quarantine time, The Incredible Jessica James is good company.

Burning Cane

Lyrical search for salvation with not-always holy rural Louisianans.
"You will never be truly happy and fulfilled if you try to hang on to possessions." Reverend Tillman (Wendell Pierce)

You can almost smell the cane burning in Phillip Youmans' Burning Cane on Netflix. Such is the synesthetic cinematic experience that every word and every image carry weight on the sense and sensibility not ordinarily given to short films. While we can easily rely on the meaning of the pastor's familiar intonation, the demanding drama will depict lives looking for meaning not in possessions.

The isolation characters feel and their lack of trust in God and each other form the dramatic foundation of this still beautiful and memorable film as homily. This brooding tone poem briefly lets you into the personal lives of deeply spiritual and flawed folks in the cane fields of rural Louisiana.

Tillman struggles with the depression of being a recent widower, and the demon bottle helps little. Just the same with Daniel (Dominique McClellan), only he's a job widower, who listens little to mother Helen (Karen Kaia Livers), who listens to the Lord through the Bible. He is indeed her Shepard.

Not always bound to the dreamy world of worship, Helen reminds Daniel that his father died of AIDS. Besides the poetic qualities of this drama is the reality of life in general and rural poverty in particular. Youmans' camera lingers in the passageways and corners to let you live with these complicated characters, never imposing anything more that deeply-felt emotion sometimes embodied in gospel tunes or in simple dialogue that says much more than it is.

Writer, director, cinematographer, and editor Philip Youmans won Best Narrative feature at the Tribeca Film Festival 2019 as well as Best Cinematography. Pierce won best actor. In other words, this well-pedigreed first feature from Youmans is worth your 77 min, for it embraces small lives with feeling. An enjoyable emotional experience.

BTW, Youmans was 19 when he launched this gem, a senior in high school.

Obvious Child

An amusing, not hilarious romcom that includes abortion commentary.
The romcom Obvious Child has been hanging around Netflix for a few years, and rightfully so, for it tackles with comedic insight another enduring cultural staple, "the one-night rebound stand after the breakup." It will take only 84 min to see how writer-director Gillian Robespierre can make this serious subject and its constant companion, abortion (Will she or won't she?), comedic and socially acceptable to discuss on a casual date.

Of course, the other reason Obvious Child is a success is its lead, Jenny Slate, playing stand-up comedian Donna Stern. Slate is natural, self-effacing and cute, not quite smashing but attractive enough to make our experience pleasant and sympathetic without being awestruck by abnormal beauty and charisma.

Besides giving varying degrees of standup, from bright contemporary topics to her abortion, funny to bomb, Slate has a sweet charm that makes you want to be a part of her life while she also makes you chuckle. Not hilarious, just smile inducing as we get used to her candor with her anecdotes that make us sometimes uncomfortable but always empathetic.

The boyfriend who dumped her, Ryan (Paul Briganti), is scruffy and unfaithful while one-night-stand Max (Jack Lacy) is all-American and much nicer than he has to be, probably one of the best rebounds in romcom history. You could do worse than watch this on a pandemic night; it sure will take your mind off our viral reality.

The Last Thing He Wanted

A hot mess
"Some real things have happened lately." Elena McMahon (Anne Hathaway)

As I recall Salvador and Under fire, and countless other forgotten investigative political thrillers, I find The Last Thing He Wanted just as much a mashup of intrigues, both international and romantic, maybe more so. With a plot hovering around Reagan, Sandinistas, conflicting American ambitions, and personal baggage, this story merits going back for its history, but even that doesn't promise your understanding. At any rate, it's plot-heavy with material for several movies.

Young but experienced journalist Elena travels to South America to collect an arms contraband payoff for her dicey dad, Dick (Willem Dafoe). You know this is not going to come out well, especially since revolutionaries are notoriously poor debtors, not terribly respectful of women, and this revolution a story she was working on anyway.

Adapted from Joan Didion's novel, The Last thing He Wanted is probably too faithful to the book and too heavy with its many plot strands. Yet it briefly entertains as interesting eccentrics glide in and out, and a central player, Treat Morrison (Ben Affleck), doesn't justify his place in the plot until the end, where he really places himself, if not too late.

Needless to say, I should see this gnarled espionage thriller again to get just the plot right. Yet, why should I have to?

"We were moving fast. We were traveling light. We were younger. I was younger" Elena


A simple story to put social distancing in its right place, not in a pandemi, but in humanity.
Writer-director Alan Yang has absorbed the full measure of auteur Wong Kar Wai, whose lovingly intimate In the Mood for Love is my litmus test for modern Asian cinema at its best. Although Netflix's Tigertail may be more realistic than Mood, it captures a middle-aged Ping Jui (Tzi Ma) romanticizing his past as he struggles to connect with his estranged daughter, Angela (Christine Ko) in the present.

Do not look to this drama for an eye-popping American love story, for it is Asian in its restraint and its lyrical understatement. After facing deep disappointment as an immigrant to America with his arranged wife, handsome Ping adjusts to the realities of life and the boredom of his marriage.

Salving his despair are the images of his former love, Yuan (Joan Chen), whom he left to go to America on his factory boss's dime and with the boss's daughter as bride. Although American romances often end with a pleasant alignment, Yang does not indulge us on such fantasies.

Tigertail smacks us with the vagaries of immigration, not the thorny process the news underlines today but rather the disappointment an immigrant might experience as he watches his American dream collapse under the weight of a reality check that includes substandard housing and menial jobs.

The latter part of Tigertail is about the glacial change that comes to Ping after his mom dies, his wife leaves him, and he must try to connect with Angela, unaccustomed as he is to saying anything much of anything to her. His Asian paternalism and cold restraint make communication challenging.

The painful reunion is the strength of the film: Most of us have at least one family member we should reach out to, but we may lack the willingness or interpersonal skills. Yet, those skills can come slowly but surely as we face them to overcome them.

Tigertail is a small drama filled with humanity, superior acting, and enviable cinematography. John Ford would be happy to see how Yang honors him with a final shot that recalls the famous frame shot in The Searchers. Tzi is no John Wayne, but they share characters with a remoteness that plagues cultures and families for all times.

As we struggle with the pandemic's demand for social distancing, Tigertail shows the effects of it in everyday real life.


Looking for a hero in pandemic times. He's here with flaws that make him even more endearing.
"One of the hardest parts of my job is to connect Iraq to the war on terror." George W. Bush

Sergio is a Netflix docudrama for our times about a man who dedicates his life to spark the peaceful future of Iraq. A diplomat who sacrifices for a greater cause is a rarity anytime, even in our pandemic times. "Sergio" Vieira de Mello (Wagner Moura) came to Iraq as the UN high commissioner for human rights, who was successful in obtaining impossible diplomatic successes in Cambodia, East Timor, and Indonesia.

That Sergio was known as a cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy gives an idea of his charisma and dedication made for the big or little screen. Although he was flawed, and the film shows this, his weaknesses further solidify him as an exceptional and very human man.

More than half this docudrama is fully engrossing as it fleshes out players from the Bush administrator in Baghdad, Paul Bremer (Bradley Whitford), to the general of the revolutionary army, Xanana Gusmao (Pedro Hossi). Sergio's sometimes miraculous feats were as much due to his uncanny diplomatic skills as to his admirable humanity. When the story focuses on tense negotiations and his growing understanding of the Iraqi people, it crackles with excitement and insight.

However, when too much of the story centers on his romance with Carolina (Ana de Armas), who also works for the UN and for the people, the film loses itself in clichés and sentimentality worthy of the international thriller formula. That he is married with two children is never hidden because of too many family flashbacks as well as romantic beaches with Carolina; they crowd the picture to the detriment of the fine deconstruction of the Iraq mess. Even the requisite lovemaking scene is glossy and gratuitous, hardly important given the horrors enfolding outside the room. He's handsome, she's beautiful-they are attracted to each other-that's as much as we need to know. We need more about the bungling of the US and neutering of the UN.

If you're still quarantined, this Netflix film is a worthy companion as an intriguing true story about a political public servant who actually has high standards. Imagine that.

Win It All

Gambling addicts may not like this melodrama; the rest of the aud will be amused.
"The urge to gamble is so universal and its practice is so pleasurable that I assume it must be evil." - Heywood Broun

Win It All is an unusually dark/light tale of card-gambling addiction because it subverts the usual notion that overcoming the addiction is just a McGuffin plot device. For Eddie (Jake Johnson), it is a matter serious enough to welcome us to join in his pain of avoiding the thing he loves to do and is not good at--gambling.

Eddie is asked to hold a bag while the owner does 6 months' time. Eddie is not to look in the bag, and if he is good about all this, he will earn $10,000. You can guess what happens to this compulsive gambler when he sees the money inside and foolishly convinces himself he can borrow, gamble, and return.

The pleasurable plot is that this rudderless gambler really tries to go straight, with some side roads to gambling, while his brother, Ron (Joe Lo Truglio) and sweetheart, Eva (Aislinn Derbez) try to coax him the right way. The story is never easy to figure ahead because he is such a loose cannon, capable of screwing up any good thing he starts.

Director Joe Swanberg lets us like Eddie while we're fearful of his ability to fall. We try not to invest in him, but he continues to screw up while we root. Eddie is a bit like Adam Sandler's Howard Ratner in Uncut Gems: ready to make a bad gamble at any moment but charming so we care even though we know he will disappoint us all.

The beauty of this 88 min melodrama is Eddie's character and the other characters who hope for Eddie's best. In that way Swanberg and co-writer Johnson create a semi-harrowing tale powered by character that ignores usual formula for gambling films.

The Shawshank Redemption

In virus times, we need this hope.
"Prison is no fairy tale world." Red Redding (Morgan Freeman)

This quote is partly true in the context of the super-popular melodrama (based on a Stephen King short story), The Shawshank Redemption. As the opening 1947 scenes in Shawshank Prison in author King's Maine (actually filmed in Mansfield, Ohio), the hero, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is raped multiple times by the "Sisters." That's to be expected from what prison lore offers over the years in movies and reality.

After Andy gets through these humiliations, and Morgan Freeman intones writer-director Frank Darabont fine script about life inside and out, the story turns almost into a fairy tale: Former bank vice president Andy brings his business skills to high and low: warden, guards, and prisoners. Additionally, he and Red make like a buddy film out of the boredom of everyday prison life.

The intersection of being sent to the hole for months and working the system to almost a vacation world creates an incarceration nostalgia that seems too Hollywood fantastic to be real. Andy's acquisition through Red of a rock hammer and a poster of Rita Hayworth not only expresses his love of geology and pop culture, it also reveals the salutary effect of the arts in lonely times.

When Andy plays an Italian opera over the loudspeaker, Red's narration describes the music like a beautiful bird. It's paradise for a brief moment.

Hope is the operative theme, hope that Andy and Red will someday be free to enjoy the Mexican Pacific Ocean: "They say it has no memory. That's where I want to live the rest of my life. A warm place with no memory." Andy

As entertainment in a time when we have been imprisoned by a pandemic, Shawshank Redemption is a welcome antidote. Our own romantic hope is to be free of a tyrannical virus.

Slow West

Maclean has renewed the genre. Slow West is available on the Internet.
"His spirit was true. There is more to life than survival. Jay Cavendish taught me that. I owe him my life. Ho for the West." Silas (Michael Fassbender, narrating)

On any pandemic day, getting out into the wide-open spaces is a therapy. Well, so is seeing a minimalist western, Slow West, beautifully photographed with plenty of non-virus space to breathe. Only, it's filmed in non-polluted New Zealand and set in 1870. That's therapy.

With Silas narrating, a small story of genre-specific questing and survival (see quote above) unfolds in a fascinating 84 minutes, replete with tropes like the sensitive, greenhorn kid, the jaded older companion, and the grizzled gang pursuing them. And a woman as the object of young Jay's (Kodi Smit-McPhee) pursuit, Rose (Caren Pistorius), is much more trouble than she looks.

Throw in some "Injun Slayers" and other disreputable types, and you have a typical Western that somehow seems fresh and up to date. This West may be slow, but it has the integrity evidenced in the opening quote and a clarity absent from our polluted, parlous times.

It's possible the universal appeal of this oater comes from the French patois of the little Haitian band the two travelers encounter on the trail or that Silas sees Jay needs a "chaperone," or that immigration is a major player in the Westward Ho. At any rate 150 years later, immigration still carries its romance and its injustice.

In addition, with the mention of Darwin, first time writer/director and former musician John Maclean makes certain we know the survival of the fittest was true in the wild West as it is in modern inequality times. Unlike great but bleak Westerns like Unforgiven or 3:10 to Yuma, Slow West reminds us of the beauty, promise, and danger of post-Civil-War migration to less than a promised land.

This worthy entry is helped from its cliché-bound story by Michael Fassbender's tough survivor and Ben Mendelson's soulless bounty hunter, Payne, both actors of grave presence who embody the contradictions of that promised land. A gentle yet powerful tale so oft' told but never so new.


Love and the city with two attractive youngsters way over their heads.
Tramps is a sweet 2016 urban romance very much of our time: Two young untried couriers, millennials Danny (Callum Turner) and Ellie (Grace Van Patten), are involved in a petty larceny for his brother involving switching briefcases. Inexperienced but charmingly boyish Danny switches the wrong one, and his convict brother is not happy.

James Bond or True Romance this mini-thriller is not. Director-writer Adam Leon has rather a story of two potential lovers running the streets and subways of Manhattan to find the right briefcase and set things right with his brother. The excitement is to see how these tyros can work things out and maybe fall in love in the meantime. The latter is slow to come and never overwhelming, given the two are also inexperienced in the exchange of love.

Yet, that simplicity of love and plot are cinematic elixir next to intricate super-hero or Scorsese-hoodlum thrillers. As the protagonists of Tramps show how they are not tramps but two engaging young folks trying to make some money in hard times.

The scenes in NY subways provide ample tension, as they always do, but the scenes in the burbs crackle with the urbanite fish-out-of water negotiating the home and lives of the snooty owners. The city/country contrast is more like a slapstick comedy than a mystery because they have only a small idea of how to find the rightful owner of the other bag.

Tramps is a soft mystery involving a babbling young man and a stony young woman, both out of their element. Helping them along is Leon's score peppered with folk and country music spot on for fitting sound with sense. Here's an enjoyable 82 min escape that brings home the joy of watching love take hold in a bizarre and soothing story. Thanks Netflix.

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness

It's solid true-crime trash that you'll binge cause you can't stop.
"Stranger than fiction." That cliché is well-worn, and probably lost much of its thrust for those parts of life that defy logic or the ordinary course of human lives. Case in point: Netflix's documentary miniseries Tiger King about the owner of a private zoo, Joe Exotic, that includes scores of tigers, with whom he has a most congenial relationship.

Joe is a good old boy with a flair for the dramatic and a natural talent for promotion. Although the animals, mostly brought up from pups, are well behaved, the real drama is Joe and his endless struggle with Carole Baskin, owner of Big Cat Rescue in Florida, who is in a constant campaign for the rights of animals like Joe's. While at opposite ends of tiger preservation, the two are locked in a hilarious dance that is good for business and viewing.

With his six-gun at this side and his bleached mullet on top, this gay redneck is a character that customers come to see as much, if not more than, the beautiful animals he nurtures and displays at the G.W. Zoo in Oklahoma. To add interest to this virtual circus, Joe's fight with Carole reaches epic proportions as her husband suddenly disappears, and Joe is accused of hiring a hitman to kill her while he accuses Carole of offing her husband.

On a less fabulous note, Joe loses a court battle with Carole over copyright infringement, leaving him to pay her $1 million. Meanwhile, he has taken funds from the zoo to help finance his failed bid for governor of Oklahoma. This stuff is the real deal, unbelievable as it seems

If you were new to Tiger King and cut into it at any point, you would probably think it a docudrama because the players are so authentic acting, so good at making their cases that you'd swear they were actors. Much of the footage comes from Joe's consistent documentation, and many of these videos appear on YouTube.

This series has the virtue of letting each character fully vent about other characters so that few are left with unstabbed backs. At over 5 hours and seven episodes, each one almost good enough to stand alone, it is eminently bingeable, especially when you're homebound by a virus more terrible than the crimes of miscreants and eccentrics in Tiger King.


Wine and ambition fuel this sweet family drama, but Sideways it is not.
"Hey, if you want to tell people what to drink with their chitlins, I'm fine." Louis (Courtney B. Vance)

If the serious contemplation of a fine wine is a sweet, deliberative process, then Netflix's Uncorked mirrors that measured appreciation in just over an hour and a half. A young son, Elijah (Mamoudou Athie), tells his dad, Louis, that he doesn't want to take over the family Memphis BBQ business. Although dad is a tough boss and father, Vance gives him a humanity not easily discounted.

What Elijah wants is to become a sommelier, which will take intense study the Court of Master Sommeliers. In his spare time, he works for a wine store and craves the Domaine Long-Depaquit Chablis. While that courageous sommelier undertaking occupies some of the film's conflict, even more is given to the tense relationship of father and son, as son disappoints father, who wants him to carry on the family business.

In neither the wine nor family case is any new ground covered, except that the family is black, not an important point of view here but an undertone. The slow changes coming over the principals create dramatic tension in our wanting to know if Elijah will pass the exam (the studying and exams are fearsome, not unlike I suppose for the CPA).

Both Vance and Athie are superb actors, who accurately depict two people who love each other but have different aspirations. The actors of the family and Elijah's girlfriend, Tanya (Sasha Compere), are relaxed and, with one exception, without stereotype. In that regard, they could be of any color and the story arc the same. No surprise that Elijah starts to win Tanya's heart with his description of chardonnay as "the jay Z of wine." As they agree Drake is like a Riesling, they're in love.

Although his color may inhibit his aspirations, he heroically pursues his dream, despite only 230 Master Sommeliers in the world and for oenophiles a white world at that. Although at times the metaphoric language of expert wine appreciation is inscrutable, Elijah's ambition speaks to any young ambitious person. Don't look for the spice of Sideways, a much more entertaining journey, but do savor the arc of a family in change.

And Then We Danced

A derivative coming-out film, its dancers and interesting locale make it worth streaming.
And Then We Danced is filled with the vigor of the former soviet State of Georgia as it depicts a young dancer, Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), fighting for a place in the Georgian National Ensemble. Besides the engaging actors and sweet, troubled story, this film was nominated for the Queer Palm at 2019 Cannes.

Although Georgian dancing in the last 50 years has moved to the masculine, this story is about the coming out of Mareb for his co-dancer Irakli (Bachi Valishvili). That un-masculine vibe permeates this formulaic romance as Mareb slowly moves from his relationship with his dancing partner, Mary (Ana Javakishvili). Although the professional folk dancing of the film provides lyrical heft, And Then is still more about a forbidden romance than it is about who will win coveted spots in the troupe.

This beautifully photographed drama, characterized by extensive closeups that only young dancers could love seeing of themselves, does not give extensive dance scenes that would lend a figurative depth to otherwise superficial dialogue. It has too many lingering shots, mostly closeup, that are no more expressive than longing looks between the male protagonists.

The locale is exotic, mainly set in Georgia's capital Tbilisi, but the story has been told too many times: Nothing new here could make you long for the excitement of Georgia vs. Russia. What stunning dancing there is, what attractive stars there are make this artsy entertainment worth seeing through streaming at The Gateway Film Center.

Miss Americana

Sweet doc about the century's good Americana ambassador.
"Okay, so, I always have to bring up everything that can go sideways - everything that we need to expect. Number one: the president could come after you." Tree Paine

In Taylor Swift: Miss Americana, Swift doesn't care what the president does; she is remarkably her own woman, caring mostly about her mom and her songs. This warmly-directed doc by first-rate director Lana Wilson is as much interested in the audiences seeing Swift a brilliant, original performer as seeing her a thoughtful, ambitious young woman who loves audience reaction as if they were family.

She is no coddled artist; rather she is a hard-working middle-class musician from Nashville who embodies for the filmmakers the widely-accessible Americana movement, which puts country and pop into the same word. Soulful ballads about personal life resonate with Swift's guarded but loving persona, helped by a sexy-wholesome mien that appeals to just about anyone, even mature types like me.

This wholesome doc is best at lingering with Swift in a location trailer or her private plane. She is open about the relentless passage of time on her aging but still-young body and her desire for a love. Other documentaries about pop-divas tend to stress the musical performance, but here as much time is spent with her private interactions and musings as her music. Madonna's Truth or Dare could be considered a precursor.

Swift's seeking approval ever since she was a country star more than a dozen years ago is in evidence here as she turns 30 and still longs to win another Grammy. At this time, she is self-confident enough to get into a Tennessee political race and to eventually face Kanye West's MTV 2018 video awards sabotage.

Taylor Swift: Miss Americana is a documentary sanitized but fascinating when it reveals the longings of a major pop diva of the 21st century. My how she has grown.

Lost Girls

The real-life murders are just one of the mysteries in this commanding docudrama.
A docudrama about young girls caught up in prostitution and murdered has enough drama of itself without any filmmaker having to massage the details for more drama. In Netflix's Lost Girls, experienced documentarian Liz Garbus directs an attention-grabbing docudrama set in 2010 among marshes of Long Island that includes a fierce mother looking for her sex-worker, Jersey City, Craigslist propositioning daughter.

Meanwhile, at least 4 bodies have been found, and the Suffolk County police are scrambling. The serial killer mystery is afoot based on a true story.

It's unknown from the start who the murderer is, freeing Garbus to shift focus into the harrowing effect the losses have on the families and friends of the girls. Blue-collar Mari (Amy Ryan) has three daughters, one of whom, Shannan, has been missing in the vicinity of the burials. Mari is a bedraggled waitress in Ellenville tirelessly goading police to do more to find her while her story as a troubled single mother incrementally unfolds to bolster suspicions that her harried life is a contributor to Shannon's unbalanced life.

Besides the drama of finding bodies under constantly overcast skies and learning more about Shannon's last day, Garbus gives us suspicions about a possible murderer, Dr. Peter Hackett (Reed Birney). Living in this area of the Island, he cryptically called Mari the day of the disappearance. Although one scene shows him acting strangely, no real proof emerges.

The lack of firm proof and the reluctance of the police to act aggressively give the story dramatic energy. Commissioner Robert Dormer (Gabriel Byrne) embodies our frustrations of not being able to piece together the evidence or stop the determined Mari to cause as much heat as possible to ramp up the search. As Mari becomes the hero that forces the police to search further, we become aware of how difficult it is to find the missing girl and determine who is the murderer.

To add to the depression of the movie's premise, scenes are largely gloomy, the town in decline, and the marshes forbidding and unforgiving. The police are slow to respond and jaded, but maybe understandably so given the naturally-slow evidence gathering and the pejorative "missing-prostitute" meme.

When we learn that Mari sent Shannan to foster homes because she couldn't handle her bipolarity, we learn that losing girls is a mosaic of bad decisions and downtrodden lives.

Police are complacent and parents flawed. Lost Girls will always be a mystery, regardless of who does the murdering.

Spenser Confidential

Wahlberg is watchable, the movie formulaic but amusing.
"What, do you work in a Brazilian steakhouse?" Cissy (Iliza Schlesinger) to some very bad boys carrying machetes. Get up with a derivative cop thriller that has enough laughs to lighten you up for a few minutes. Although I doubt if crime film Spenser Confidential has an original moment (it is about a former disgraced cop, Spenser, played by Mark Wahlberg, back into the game), it has charming actors having a ball in Boston's South Side.

Spenser spent a few years in the clink for beating up a deserving cop, his superior; now Spenser's on the trail of whoever murdered that corrupt public servant. Will you see more bad cops before one of them is fingered for masterminding drug operations? yes. However, you will also enjoy the banter between Spenser and sometime girlfriend, Cissy. It's not screwball comedy, but it's a cut above the comic thrillers it relentlessly copies.

Schlesinger is a delightful discovery as the tough Cissy, whose Southie accent and take-no-prisoners attitude is unusually humorous, in a way similar to the stone-faced, kick-ass Betty Gilpin as Crystal in The Hunt. The rough-and-tumble heroine is becoming a cliché in these #MeToo times, but these two ladies have real comedic chops revealing real acting talent.

While Spenser gets beaten up every few minutes, he is after all an ex- cop and ex-con who knows his way around fists. And he's played by Mark Wahlberg, who's been charmingly doing this blue-collar South- Boston thing forever. So has Alan Arkin playing his crusty mentor, always a joy to be with even though he's never quite with you, just putting up with the idiots that people a formulaic movie.

Watching Spenser Confidential on Netflix because theaters are shut down has the salutary effect of forcing me to enjoy unartful drama with satisfactory moments of character and a few funny lines. Until the virus decides its exit, I could do worse than watch Mark Wahlberg and friends.

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