jdesando

IMDb member since October 2001
    Lifetime Total
    2,500+
    Top Reviewer
     
    IMDb Member
    17 years

Reviews

High Life
(2018)

Serious and bleak space travel with Denis' characteristic intelligence and irony.
"Our flight must not be only to the stars but into the nature of our own beings . . . Our natures will be going there, too." Philip K. Dick

And you thought 2001: A Space Odyssey was slow. Claire Denis' High Life, depicting death-row inmates on a miserable eight-year black-hole mission to harvest its rotational energy for a hungry earth, is a painfully slow dance with eroticism at its most basic.

Given that true survival can be only through births, the process to engender is haphazard artificial insemination, troubling because of radiation and manipulated by chief doctor and child murderer Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche). Denis carries over from her Trouble Every Day and Bastards a darkness and psychosexuality that make here for a disturbing and intriguing study of loneliness and hopelessness.

Monte (Rob Pattinson) seems to be about the sanest among the crew, and initially unbeknownst to him, he's the father of a daughter, who grows up during the journey. Where she may find a mate in the loneliness of space, writer/director Denis lets us speculate.

Although High Life could be considered low life with a cast of disreputable characters, Denis has far heavier matters to consider, in part about how life and its survival may depend on a balanced menu of sex and daily duties, in other words the elementary building blocks of civilization carefully attended to.

Visually this heady sci-fi is not in the same constellation as the beautiful Space Odyssey or the minimalist Gravity. Its beauty is not born of CGI but rather the Darwinian struggle to survive and more than that, to be human and civilized.

Peterloo
(2018)

A splendid rendition with Mike Leigh's perfect pitch about the commoners.
"Rise like Lions after slumber in unvanquishable number- Shake your chains to earth like dew Which in sleep had fallen on you- Ye are many-they are few." Shelley, from The Masque of Anarchy

No contemporary director depicts and loves the working class better than Mike Leigh: look at Secrets and Lies for the best example. Believing that not enough people know about the massacre in 1819 in Manchester, where the British army slaughtered 18 and wounded scores of commoners peacefully assembling for liberty and rights, Leigh filmed Peterloo, the popular name for the uprising.

With an ear for local locutions and pompous preening, Leigh alternates between the people and their monarchial rulers, showing the sincerity of the marchers and the fear of the magistrates, who wish for nothing more than a Waterloo to stem the French-revolution-like yearnings of the folk. When administrators order the soldiers to squash the gathering, it's the beginning of responsible press reporting the malignity of entrenched rulers.

Leigh's longtime cinematographer, Dick Pope, has exceptional shots of the laborers and their homes to rival the best work of Millet and Courbet. The framing arches and rolling fields provide Pope with contours and colors to complement the dignity and vitality of the people.

However, it's Leigh's unfailing ear for diction and eye for metaphor that distinguish him as a David Lean of the working class. Contrasting the magistrates clustered around drafting the warrants for the crowd and the almost lyrical happiness of the assembly not only sets up the worlds of sad and happy, but they also heighten the terror as the innocent are vanquished by the proud.

Out of this debacle came a strong press that began and never stopped evaluating the ruling class. All hail the emergence of the Manchester Guardian.

"Let a great Assembly be Of the fearless and the free On some spot of English ground Where the plains stretch wide around." Shelley

The Public
(2018)

Entertaining protest story the challenges free speech and authority.
"The public library is the last bastion of democracy that we have in this country!" Anderson (Jeffrey Wright)

A challenge to democracy, a defense of the first amendment, and a complex standoff between police and protesters is what writer/ director Emilio Estevez expertly does in the docudrama, the Public. With echoes of Dog Day Afternoon and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Estevez gives an authentic feel to this urban drama in one of the country's most conservative communities,

Like Dog Day's Sonny, protagonist Stuart Goodson (Estevez) is an innocent caught in his idealism and foolishness. Stuart manages a library and becomes involved in a homeless demonstration on perhaps the coldest Cincinnati night. The sufferers want refuge in the library, and the city erroneously considers their sit-in to be a hostage situation.

With the always interesting Alec Baldwin as Detective Ramstead negotiating, the scene gets tense, but Stuart is cool enough to keep talks going without giving in. Other characters are equally underwritten such as Jena Malone's librarian and Christian Slater's prosecutor/mayoral candidate. Especially the homeless characters, most are underdeveloped or emblematic of a single trait.

Stuart, however, is fully written but too goody for my taste. Although the writer/director clearly supports the protesters' point of view, the screenplay also allows moments when the authorities can be praised for keeping the peace but criticized for neglecting the plight of the homeless. With this complex characterization and motives, Estevez find a satisfactory drama amid some obvious stereotypes and clichés.

It's a good story played out everyday in different forms. The plight of the homeless and disadvantaged is eternal.

Pet Sematary
(2019)

A solid horror thriller with some important things to say.
"Sometimes, dead is better." Jud (John Lithgow)

I've seen a few horror films in my time, and too few rise to the level of, say, The Exorcist or The Shining.

But now and then a good one comes by, scary with a social conscience such as last year's It by Stephen King. His current Pet Sematary doesn't necessarily eclipse its own previous iterations; rather it provides with some plot changes, a venue for a classic notion, life after death, and it does it well enough.

Louis (Jason Clarke), an ER doc, moves his wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz); daughter, Ellie (Jete Laurence); and son, Gage (Lucas Lavoie and Hugo Lavoie) from frenetic Boston to rural Maine to escape the madness. However, this is Stephen King territory: Right away they have to deal with the change in their beloved cat and with the weird pet cemetery on their property. Oh, yes, and an adjacent burial ground that provides the film's largest horrors.

Although I appreciate the usual tropes like jump scares and gross bodies, I'm mostly moved, or scared as the case might be, by the treatment of belief in the afterlife. Our doctor doesn't believe until faced with cat, Cage, coming home from his grave, and, well, other strange occurrences. Let the scares begin.

Mostly I am moved by the man of science's dismissal about the afterlife to his full belief in the concept. He becomes a believer, fulfilling my fervid hope for a commitment on the religious themes and the obvious terror of meeting ones you loved, gone but not for good.

Secondarily, Pet Sematary is also about striking out for a new life and leaving goodness behind while evil visits in every turn. It's a cautionary tale about knowing what you are getting into when you alter your life.

"She won't come back the same." Jud

Hotel Mumbai
(2018)

Real and terrible: A modern parable of international mayhem.
"The guest is God," motto of the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai.

Based on a series of terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008, Hotel Mumbai captures the siege of a city besieged by gunmen doing an efficient job of killing at least 100 people and shutting down a modern metropolis. The focus is on the fabulous Taj Mahal Hotel, a fitting symbol of modern depravity for these four Pakistani Muslims bent on doing Allah's vengeance.

Director Anthony Maras, along with other writer John Collee, give s personality to a few of the staff and guests: head chef Hemant Oberoi (Annpam Kher) is courage personified as he guides guests out of the mayhem; head waiter Arjun (Dev Patel) has the smarts and valor to do the same; rich American guest David (Armie Hammer) is fearless defending his family. Throughout, class distinctions between guests and staff are preserved, lending another level of accuracy.

Beyond these notable participants are the other usual stereotypes such as the shady but redeemable Russian, the conscience-stricken terrorist, and the scared sister protecting David's baby. However, the use of real news footage on TVs keeps us grounded in the reality.

While these formulaic victims are unavoidable in any disaster film, the filmmakers create tension by cutting between the terrorists randomly and coldly dispatching anyone in sight and the besieged hotel denizens. When David's baby cries in a closet, we fear the terrorists will hear. That's real tension, real terror.

It's hard not to place ourselves in that situation and not empathize with the helpless victims and wonder what courage we would show. Although the women too often cry and many men are cowardly, no way can you leave the theater and not be a little more aware of the vicissitudes of travel abroad and the marvel at your courageous fellow human beings.

Here's a successful, scary thriller and cautionary tale: Danger is out there, no matter where you go.

The Aftermath
(2019)

An early-spring treat that entertains without being a classic.
"We dropped more bombs in Hamburg on one weekend than fell on London in the whole of the war." Col. Morgan (Jason Clarke)

WW II was unkind to all. Five months into the 1945 allied occupation of Germany, The Aftermath, based on the book by Rhidian Brook and set in Hamburg, chronicles another war that never ends: the love triangle. Facing off are Rachael Morgan (Keira Knightley) in the middle; her husband, Colonel Morgan, on one side; and the hunky German resident of their home, Stephen Lubert (Alexander Skarsgard), on the other.

Daily and weekly preoccupation with German rebel groups and the challenges of de-Nazification rebuilding, Lewis lets his lonely, grieving wife (she lost a son in the blitz) fall into Lubert's sculpted arms. So gently does director James Kent let her fall, that her infidelity seems almost acceptable, given the tattered life of post-war Germany.

Too much of this dark romance centers on the lovers kissing and hugging rather than helping the wounded and the stunned reacclimate themselves. The tension builds from the Nazis' nightmare-like presence and questions about Lubert's sympathies during the war. Although the colonel must face his wife's infidelity, his character reminds us of the divided responsibilities and further complications when one must deal with infidelity as well as war's aftermath.

Tragi-romantic and historic- The Aftermath comes at a good time of year for a quiet reflection on loyalty, love, and duty. Besides the visually stunning estate, picturesque snow, and immaculate automobiles, the leads are handsome and smart, making up for the lack of originality in the triangle (Knightley's gold evening dress alone is stunning).

Formulaic though it is, it still engages because the longing to be desired and belong is timeless and universal.

Dumbo
(2019)

Tim Burton applies his magic to this re-imagined classic, but not enough.
"You've made me a child again." V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton)

Dumbo almost soars! And Tim Burton comes down to earth with a remake of a Disney classic that could have been a classic on its own. Gone are Burton's excess along with Johnny Depp; welcome an endearing tale of a flying elephant. The formulaic Disney plot arc is here from joy to despair to joy at last, from motherless kids and ruthless showmen to home again and a prosperous circus.

Dumbo will indeed make you a child again with its shabby but soulful circus that gives birth to the wondrous Dumbo. Max Medici (Danny DeVito) is the ringmaster who must keep the show afloat with a mix of ruthlessness and vulnerability. Not as nice is his new domineering merger partner, Vandevere, who exudes self-centeredness that knows not charity.

The comparison to the recent merger of Disney and Fox is spot on, and the Dreamland sequences cry out Disneyland. Some praise must go to corporate merger-master Disney for letting the satire into its own revisionist film. Needless to say, the formula for Disney fantasy is in tact here, giving another layer of irony for a film that a celebrates differences but preserves formula.

Those bad boys Vandevere and Medici are matched by the bevy of goodies, not least of which is returning veteran dad and widower, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), whose lost arm is compensated for by his heart; and Collette Marchant (Eva Green), whose benevolence is instrumental in liberating the little elephant form cruel masters and Holt's children from loneliness for their deceased mother.

In tune with the Disney demand for righteousness, the salvation of these suffering workers is not really the circus phenom but their own ability to overcome evil. That independence and courage are boilerplate Disney as well as the necessity of family unity and love.

"Hi, baby Dumbo, welcome to the circus. We're all family here, no matter how small." Milly Farrier (Nico Parker)

Dragged Across Concrete
(2018)

Tarantino would enjoy this eccentric and memorable heist film.
"It's bad for you, it's bad for me, it's bad like lasagna in a can." Anthony (Vince Vaughn)

Writer/director S. Craig Zahler blew me away with Bone Tomahawk, as eccentric a western as ever made. In Dragged Across Concrete his two white, male suspended-cops' (Anthony and Brett, played convincingly by Mel Gibson) heist takes a more traditional path but has dialogue continually as crisp as my headliner, though decidedly less explosive and ironic than Tarantino's Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs.

Although you may think you have seen this gritty and yet mellow thriller before, Zahler has expertly and innovatively conducted us through an eccentric but dangerous underworld of robbery and treachery. I suspect in real life the double-dealing happens more than we would guess.

Two-handed dialogue, ala Tarantino, about fast food and family, for both the two protagonists and the bad guys, alternates between the mundane and the philosophical, anchovies, and murder. Although conversation is not as caustic as that of Tarantino's loveable crooks, the wordplay rings truer about daily living, even for those involved in robbery and murder.

The wonder of this heist is that we get to know even the bad guys, Russian and Latino, as the director keeps the camera steady on two crooks driving the getaway van and talking about family and the growing danger of the robbery. Or getting to know a victim through an extended visit to her paranoia about leaving her apartment and child for numbing work at the targeted bank. Fate will decide her future, and we are the more empathetic for having spent time with her.

Dragged Across Concrete fulfills the promise of its hard-edged title: its heist is memorable, multifaceted, and microscopically treated as if we were in the planning and execution. Along the way there's humor to lighten the death-threatening caper.

Brett catches the ambivalent crime-stopping the two are indicted for: "And it turns out that sh-t's more important than good, honest work." This is a good, honest heist film about characters not so good or honest but interesting nonetheless.

Gloria Bell
(2018)

The best character study currently in films.
In Gloria Bell, when Bonnie Tyler's Total Eclipse of the Heart" can be a romantic coda, and Paul McCartney's No More Lonely Nights can be hopeful, while Gilbert O'Sullivan's Alone Again (Naturally) is the more accurate read, you can be assured we're in the Twilight Zone of a lonely 50 something divorcee looking for happiness or at least balance, not just of yoga. However, Gloria is played by the gorgeous Joanna Moore, so you know she has a few more chapters in her love book.

Writer-director Sebastian Lelio has re-worked his Chilean hit, Gloria, from six years ago, and it hasn't aged a bit. The music alone, a mix of disco, Latin, and pop, keeps the pace as frenetic and romantic as Gloria's searching heart. When she meets the unreliable Arnold (John Turturro) and falls for him, she eventually determines he is as toxic as his paint gun concession isn't. Her end to that romance is a classic.

The reason to see this dramedy about a middle-aged hunter is to bathe in the glamor and vulnerability of this highly-developed woman. Her tireless search for love in discos and bars is a metaphor for our own hunt until we work hard enough to merit the prize.

Through the disappointments that family brings to lonely hearts like Gloria's emerges a heart strong enough to keep up the good fight. It's all not glorious, but it is alive with moments of truth and love that give sustenance to the warrior.

Gloria Bell is an absorbing character study, for which Moore should be nominated, taking us through the joy of letting go through dance to immersing in affections ill-timed and disappointing. Yet, like the title, life has glorious moments, and this film captures those highs and lows with a performance the best of Moore's career. And Lilo's.

Us
(2019)

Who would have thought such a rousingly good film at this time of year>
"They look exactly like us. They think like us. They know where we are. We need to move and keep moving. They won't stop until they kill us... or we kill them." Adelaide (Madison Curry)

You thought Jordan Peele's Get Out was a smart person's horror film; well his Us is even better because the intelligent themes are there, but the horror elements are amped up, quite reasonably I'd have to say. A sweet family is terrorized by its doppelgangers, who seem to represent the dark side of themselves and humanity.

The thrills are more than the usual horror tropes like jump scares and scary rooms. Each character must face his twin and fight it as if his life depended on it, and it does. When the opening scene has young Adelaide strolling away from her parents at the Santa Cruz beach into a fun-house hall of mirrors, you know she will face her twin, Young Red, and be forever changed for that brief 15 minutes.

Writer Peele lets the growing family prosper slowly until the twin family arrives, when baseball bats and fireplace pokers can do only so much to dispel those creatures. One of the nice touches is that the good guys can be effective against the home invaders but only with cunning and a ton of courage. As with most of this genre, no creature dies easily or quickly.

If like me, you take your horror lite, in Us is plenty of small asides that give a chuckle and also add to the suspense. When dad (Winston Duke, physically resembling Tyler Perry and Jordan Peele and therefore likeable if not at times schlubby), comments that mom has just left the car, the dark humor is that she's left to find one of the twins and armed only with the now iconic scissors. We want to tell her not to go there alone because we know the tradition of a loner going into a forest.

As for star of Us, mom Adelaide/Red (Lupita Nyong'o) kicks butt most of the time because dad is debilitated, and women in general are more apt to take over these days. See this excellent film at a time of year when we could have expected less.

Pájaros de verano
(2018)

Cartels, lovely and deadly.
Birds of Paradise takes a familiar subject, the Colombian drug scene in the '60's and '70's, and makes it into a watchable Godfather saga. Family is the center of the action leading to, you guessed it, warring drug kingdoms. The cinematography is lush, the actors authentic, and the themes eternal.

The stuff that makes the world happy, weed, comes down from the mountains to the small airplanes, which fly north to the US, a pleased customer bringing prosperity to otherwise impoverished Colombians. Marriage promises families forever linked until capitalism, not communism, rends even the strongest familial ties.

The five "cantos" embrace happiness and misery in equal measure: wild grass, the graves, prosperity, the war, and limbo. The coming out party of gorgeous Zaida (Natalia Reyes) presages a bright future for her Wayuu tribe with a blazing-red silk dress and stunning face paint. However, the imposing mother Ursula (Carmina Martinez) demands an expensive dowry that suitor Rapayet (Jose Acosta) might have difficulty offering. This matriarch gives the lie to any theory that Latino culture is purely patriarchal.

Ambition leads to drug running, family feuding, and temporary wealth. The riches are embodied in the colorful fabrics that are flamboyant and garish at the same time. The dark downfalls could be written about anywhere.

Birds of Passage is an engaging and beautiful gloss on the effects of tribalism and the corruptions of wealth and power, exacerbated by the obsession with the belief in family to die for at all costs. It is a glowing and menacing reprise of the Colombian Corleone days set amongst the indigenous Wayuu, for whom only a few moments are in paradise.

Captive State
(2019)

Diverting sci-fi in a weak-movie time of year.
Captive State is a sci-fi, dystopian attempt that isn't in the same quality star system as Blade Runner and its ilk. It's a narrative about the near future (maybe about eight years from now but no tech allowed, so Polaroids are the best they can do) with an alien invasion and fragmented freedom fighters joining in a flawed rebellion, so murky as to be downright puzzling. Clear it is not.

Captive State does have an always reliable John Goodman as Commander William Mulligan, a fitting name for a local watchdog who struggles with both sides of the fight. His role as a law enforcer in a rebel-infested section and with a spineless citizenry is about the only developed character in this wasteland.

If you're looking to get a sense of who the aliens are, don't. They appear briefly, resembling at first a hairy Elmo, then later a desert plant with spikes.

The Chicago-occupying alien "legislators" have demanded and received full compliance around the world to the tune of disbanded armies and full fealty from earth quislings who control the passive earthlings. This tyranny is best expressed at a big rally where an Amazon-like beauty sings the alien-friendly version of The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Yet this lack of aliens, who are not on the surface but mostly under the earth, allows writer/director Rupert Wyatt a concentration on the fighters, which he and co-writer Erica Beeney valiantly try but with limited success because there are too many characters too slimly developed. The ever-enchanting Vera Farmiga as a madam working the underground with her business is in only a few scenes that don't do justice to her relationship with the rebels and bureaucrats, especially Mulligan.

I don't doubt the filmmakers wished its sci-fi to be an allegory about our own authoritarian-leaning, colonizing world; they just don't let that intriguing rendition get traction amid the confusion of images and operatives. Although like me, you'll eventually get the gist.

The cheap CGI, dark settings, absent occupiers, and Focus Features' canceling the critics' screening might give you a hint that this is neither a coherent thriller nor a classic.

Yet, it's that weak-movie time of year when even this sci-fi is welcome, imperfect as it is.

Apollo 11
(2019)

It doesn't get better than this doc.
"I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small." Neil Armstrong looking on earth from the moon.

If somehow you missed Apollo 11's flight to the moon in 1969 (indeed you might not have been born yet), fear not: The perfect documentary about those three real superheroes is here. The titular doc stars Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins in nail biting suspense and no explosions save rocket propulsion.

The only part not of the original footage is the original synth drones' soundtrack by an inspired Matt Morton. The percussive beat has pomp like that of a thriller in which the president has a fleet of black SUV's rolling to its heart-beating energy, supporting a blockbuster that this time is for real.

Notwithstanding the deeply introspective First Man, starring Ryan Gosling as Armstrong, the real Armstrong comes through in this doc. As expected, he's like the straight arrow he is alleged to be-good guy, slightly nerdy, smart, evident even with as little face time as he has here.

Maybe that's the point: Without the sophisticated computers we have 50 years later, these astronauts and technicians work hard long hours together, no claims to glory, profit, or party loyalty. Their collaboration is worthy of any Marvel voyage; only it's real.

New images and sounds emerge despite the decades of depicting this event in multi-media. Some NASA shots have never been seen before. Although the images may not be as spectacular as the ones we've grown accustomed to, they represent the constantly renewable glory of mankind at its technological best, devoid of petty ego embellishments and full of human connections.

You'll find more dramatic renditions of this adventure, but you'll never find 93 minutes more perfectly capturing the grandeur of science and humanity working together to realize the impossible. This right stuff is right here in a grand documentary called, very simply, Apollo 11.

Captain Marvel
(2019)

Larson and Jackson are the real heroes of a this superhero origin story.
Oscar-winning Brie Larson as noble Kree commando Carol Danvers makes a difference. Her cool indifference to showing off or overacting makes her a welcome addition to the Marvel Comic Universe. The adventure itself is not as original as the character/actor because it slavishly follows the Marvel/Super Power formulas (especially kapow and more kapow). It has, however, the first MCU female super-hero lead and a female as co-director and writer.

It is not, lamentably, the cultural change agent that Black Panther has been. Captain Marvel is modest in ambition and scope. But fun anyway, especially in just another fight scene where No Doubt's "Just a Girl" places it right in the '90's and gives juice to the feminist theme.

Danvers initially fights for the empire against the reptilian Skrulls, who are shape shifters and terrorists to be stopped from taking over the universe. Carol is captured but escapes to earth, 1995, where she joins with S.H.I.E.L.D. operative Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, de-aged to digital perfection; Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson not so much) to search for her past (she has amnesia from some high-powered alien stuff I better not try to explain), the source of her powers and Skrulls.

Also dealing with Kree leader Supreme Intelligence (Annette Bening) taxes Carol even more than Fury. In say a grunge chic, girl power '90's way, Larson and Jackson would do fine with a buddy film where they can exchange barbs like screwball comedy leads or just action characters of the 1990's.

Nothing really new here for a super-hero film: lots of fights, lightning-like weapons, wise cracks, and villains you can spot a galaxy away, even if they shape shift. It's the wholesome dignity and ironic awareness of Carol that alters the formula to a more human and reasonably wicked evil without hammering away both for her feminism and genuine love of humanity.

Captain Marvel is an entertaining super-hero flick with cartoonish characters and absurd setups. However, that heroine is worth seeing so you can fit her more nicely into the next chapter of the Avengers and witness a new type of hero that takes a reasoned approach to absurdity. Feminist the film can't avoid being; human it becomes under the power of charismatic actors.

Werk ohne Autor
(2018)

A beautiful biopic with true insight.
"Everything that is true is beautiful." Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling)

Never Look Away is a truly beautiful film, catching the biography of fictional artist Kurt Barnet (truly a veiled biopic of renowned contemporary German artist Gerhard Richter). Unlike most artist bios, this one lets you breathe in the Nazi repression and post-war liberation without forgetting Kurt is struggling to find his voice amidst crushing oppression and daunting liberation.

As a young, talented boy watching the abduction of his beloved Aunt Lisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl), Kurt suffers subsequent humiliations before he arrives as an artist moving from social realism favored by the socialists, communists, and Soviet Union to photographic realism, to abstraction and combinations therein favored by the world. To be expected, the memory of his aunt informs almost every major decision of his short life as an unknown young man.

The film, a nominee from Germany for foreign Oscar, is most exciting not when he courts his wife or faces down the Nazis, but when he discovers his voice. It is gratifying to watch the slow process and feel a part of his discoveries. Most artist biopics miss giving that intimate sense of the creative process although in the end the artist is never fully explained even here. That's also what gives such a thrill-the realization that the gift is from someplace unknowable because it goes beyond ordinary human understanding.

Never Look Away is writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's gift to us of drama and insight, three absorbing hours that seem but an hour. Barely time enough to get to know genius. My gift to you is a short review, so you can spend the time on a timeless movie.

Todos lo saben
(2018)

A welcome thriller and family drama in this movie low season.
"It's time that gives character, from personality to wine." Paco (Javier Bardem)

Asghar Farhadi, whose films lay heavily on family drama, a sort of humorless Woody Allen, has a general audience pleaser in the thriller and family drama film, Everybody Knows. Although the thriller motif is alive and kicking without serious avoidance of its tropes, it's in the family drama that this interesting film gets its Spanish sunshine.

Opening with a striking clock metaphor, emphasizing the influence of time on the family, Farhadi cuts to an exuberant Spanish family wedding with wine and dancing dominating. Soon, however, the abduction and ransom demand for a family teen, Irene (Carla Campra), precipitously changes the scene to a family grieving.

Mother Laura (Penelope Cruz) enlists the help of ex-love Paco to get Irene from the kidnappers. As we watch the family twist and turn, it is clear that Paco and Laura go a long way back and may still love each other; the abduction helps to mitigate the passion.

As the opening quote hints, Everybody Knows is as much about the alteration of time and its influence in the present as it is about abduction. The kidnappers know the family well enough to manipulate them, know their pasts that is. Moreover, as Paco and Laura's past dramatically impinges on the present, so too does the family legacy, right down to the teen generation that has a challenge defining their character without the help of time or whatever wealth the land offers the family.

Cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine (frequent collaborator with Almodovar) so crisply lenses the Spanish countryside that you'd think we were seeing A Walk in the Clouds or Under the Tuscan Sun. But we're not; we are deeply moved by a family's grief over the abduction and the concomitant effect of time on the family.

For an enjoyable thriller that dramatically emphasizes dialogue and family politics, Everybody Knows knows how to entertain and challenge. And the chemistry of Cruz and Bardem doesn't hurt either.

Greta
(2018)

Cast is terrific; the movie not so much.
"The city's going to eat you alive." Erica (Maika Monroe)

When is a horror film, Greta, a comedy? When elite writer-director Neil Jordan decides to play with the genre and comment on the fractured relationships of modern mothers and daughters.

When Jordan did an award-winning thriller, The Crying Game, in 1992, he stylishly mixed politics and sexuality; in his current Greta, he once again takes on a social issue and wraps it in a thriller bow. How does young Franky (Chloe Grace Moretz), in NYC after graduation, refuse the friendship of an older woman, Greta, who initially seems like a benevolent friend, even mother substitute, when she's a psychotic stalker? Very quickly refuse, if Frances can.

As Erica again warns, "The crazier they are, the harder they cling."

Jordan lards his wicked piece of entertainment with a hidden room, creepy piano, and a naive young woman, among the many tropes that cry out for laughs or shudders depending on your horror index. At the beginning, Greta seems a sophisticated older elite who just happens to have a few screws loose as well as missing relatives.

It's not that we have an idea of what's to come, for it has all been done before in the too-conventional way, but happily not by Interview with a Vampire's talented director. Jordan mixes the macabre with the mirthful, sometimes to confuse the tone, especially for those not used to a blend of horror, humor, and thriller. Otherwise, it's easy to guess what's coming once Great's described as sticking around "like chewing gum."

As for the mother-daughter theme, better leave that one alone because Jordan telegraphs it regularly while Frances laments the loss of her mother and Greta, well, maybe not so much her daughter. As for Jordan alumnus Stephen Rea, nice to know ya! And Frances's Dad, Chris (Colm Feore), almost a cameo with enough concern to help assuage our anger that he a daughter have not gotten along since her mother's death.

I guess that relationship qualifies for daddy issues. No end to motifs when a gifted director decides to get smart with a couple of old genres. Fun and fright await the audience, but then for those who ride the NY subway system, not much can out scare the experienced.

Arctic
(2018)

You may never see a better survival film.
It's doubtful you'll see a more engaging or harrowing survival film than Joe Penna's Arctic. Along with Tómas Örn Tómasson's expansive and confining cinematography, Penna takes us to the downed Overgard (Mads Mikkelson), alone in the Arctic but surviving.

Although he has positioned himself in the wreck with enough fish and protection to survive, he must decide what to do with a rescuer (Maria Thelma Smaradottir), who went down in a helicopter. That he must take her for help is no surprise; that he does with such selflessness and strength in the joy of the film.

She now shares his fate although she's completely without strength. What ensues is about as realistic as you could have although Overgard is just a bit more resourceful than most other mortals would be.

Regardless, the audience is treated to a character's painful circumstances and decisions mixed with a caring that goes beyond expectations. As bleak as the future seems to be, the landscape is bleaker, in reality the snow-swept region of Iceland.

The brilliance of this survival epic is the display of fear and humanity set against a desperate situation. Sometimes it feels like the personal torture of 127 hours and the minimal dialogue of All is Lost with a touch of Liam Neeson's courage in Cold Pursuit.

Ignore the pat ending, for Arctic will put you inside the cabin of the wreck and outside where snow, rock, and an occasional hungry bear will make you happy to be in any traffic jam at rush hour rather than surviving in the arctic.

Capharnaüm
(2018)

This great film should give Roma and Shoplifters the jitters.
Travel the slums of Beirut with 12-year Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), who is suing his parents "for giving me life." Included in his anger are the other children they can't take care of. Capernaum (translated "chaos") is a stunning cinematic achievement that will make you forget the splash of Slumdog Millionaire, the grit of City of God, and the unbelievable nature of the law suit.

Yet, given that his parents couldn't afford to register his birth and therefore denied him personhood in Lebanon, the suit doesn't seem so odd ("I need proof that you're a human being," declaims an official to Zain). After they sell off his little sister, Sahar, to the grocer for whom Zain makes deliveries, Zain takes off on a picaresque journey that starts at an amusement park-figuratively appropriate.

Like Slumdog, non-professional actors from the street in Capernaum lend the realism that De Sica practically patented in his iconic Italian neo-realism. Casting director Jennifer Haddad has done an enviable job drawing in children whose lives have reflected the ones they are playing, e.g., Zain has worked as a delivery boy since he was 10.

After meeting Ethiopian immigrant Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), Zain takes care of her toddler Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole-a phenomenal one-year-old child actor) in a loving, protective, and resourceful way as the boy's troll Beirut to such a sweet intent it seems this could not be about a 12-year old child incarcerated for five years for stabbing an adult.

Capernaum rightly won the Cannes Jury award and is nominated for a best foreign language Oscar. You will agree to that wisdom when you spend some time in director Nadine Labaki's unforgettable slice of mid-eastern life. Were it not for Netflix's Roma, Capernaum might win that category (Shoplifters, another example of "poverty porn," also occupies that territory).

Capernaum's overarching beauty is partly in the cinematography, which careens through the ghetto with such agility as to make the place familiar and charming in its chaos. Left by Yonas's mother, who is foolishly and miserably jailed before she can contact the boys, Zain tenderly takes care of the child, carrying him like a wounded brother in battle in the streets foraging for baby formula and looking for Rahil.

Confronting his own mother in court, the handsome Zain has nothing but contempt for her as she sits there pregnant and oblivious to the pain she causes children she can't adequately raise. The suit becomes more a metaphor than a reality given its unlikely success.

Throughout, Zain is resourceful and proud, giving back insults like a 30-year old. His acting and most others' are first-rate, astonishing because they are non-professionals. Working with gifted director Nadine Labaki for six months in Beirut shows the importance of location shooting and premier coaching.

By the end, a sympathetic audience will forgive the formulaic coincidences and sweet resolutions because the bulk of the film is as real as the world of today's immigrants lining the Mexican border to the US.

Cold Pursuit
(2019)

Cold and warm, Coen and Tarantino. A good time enjoying a new Neeson.
Since 2008's Taken, Liam Neeson has been chasing bad guys (who do bad things to his families) to give the audience a satisfactory sense of comeuppance. He's chasing miscreants in his newest revenge caper, Cold Pursuit; they have murdered his son, and he's not happy.

Neeson's Nels Coxman drives a huge snowplow in the small town of Kehoe, where he received citizen of the year before his son was murdered. After that, he becomes the Charles- Bronson type of vigilante but with a limited empathy for his victims or at least a sincere vengeance that makes the audience sympathetic to his mission.

The new ingredient for these abduction/murder plots is a sense of Coen-like humor, or Tarantino. The gangsters have unique personalities and sometimes come across with a witty or silly line, depending on the goon.

As in Fargo, the white snow is juxtaposed with the darkness of the mobs, made up of white drug dealers and native American hoods. Rounding out the motley crew is a female cop, a young officer echoing Marge without the gravity and with a bit of her irony. With the light humor thrown around, you will be reminded of the filmmakers who figured out that even crooks can laugh.

Cold Pursuit is cold enough, but with a little warmth spread around, audiences will have their blood and smile, only this time it's not Tarantino or Coen, but Hans Petter Moland, whose Kraftidioten was the inspiration for this remake.

It's a freezing good time where the air is crisp and the bodies well preserved in a revenge zone that continues to delight with variations on a genre that will not die.

Minding the Gap
(2018)

It's documentary royalty in the grim streets of a declining mid-west city.
"Skateboarding is more of a family than my family." A Skateboarder

Director Bing Liu's Hulu-original documentary Minding the Gap traces his and his buddies early adolescent love affair with skateboards through early adulthood where a baby or a job can change that carefree lifestyle. Bing and co-editor Joshua Altman hit all the right beats with smooth sailing boards and turbulent family life, just like the rest of us except we might us bicycles.

Although home base Rockford, Illinois, is in an economic downturn, and the working-class families are barely making it, Zach sucks down 12 packs with ease and fathers a boy with a care both exemplary and fraught with a contentious wife, 21-year-old Nina. Nothing new here, for we all are touched by familial challenges.

It's just that at times Bing Liu makes it all seem effortless or without consequences, like the speeding boards and his speeding camera right behind: no cops and no crashes. The real talent is to make the depressing city and disoriented principals seem happy enough and taken care of, not always the reality but a necessary romance.

Skateboarders will love the respect this doc gives their craft, and civilians will delight in the realism, grit, and love that eventuate from the grim background of a city in decline. The boarders are on the rise, with long lives of friendship ahead of them:

"This device cures heartbreak." A saying on the edge of a board.

Serenity
(2019)

A crazy-quilt of a modern noir set in a remote island with eccentricity to spare.
Serenity is anything but that considering Matthew McConaughey plays dissolute boat captain Baker Dill. While the loose tuna and shark fisherman with a questionable past is caught in a noir tangle with his ex-wife, Karen (Anne Hathaway), other nightmarish activities make this the most challenging thriller of this season and a head scratcher right to the end.

In an unknown seaside island in some ocean, Dill pursues a large tuna regularly, in Ahab fashion. Meanwhile he also takes out fat cats like Karen's abusive husband, Frank (Jason Clarke), whom she is going to pay Dill dearly to let him sink into the sea sodden and surly.

The plot convolutes as the background of the motivations veers wildly, including Dill's son, Patrick (Rafael Sayegh), who becomes more of an influence over the action as the story progressives. As in most film noir, not all pasts are forgotten and not much is as it seems.

The sun and sea are hypnotic, the characters nutty, and th plot overwrought. Nevertheless, you could do much worse in this down-time for new releases. I liked it enough to stay through the credits, where I discovered the movie was filmed in Mauritius. I'm going there!

The Upside
(2017)

Surprisingly sweet and funny.
"Some people are walking around with full use of their bodies and they're more paralyzed than I am." Christopher Reeve

The Upside is a potentially sappy setup adapted from the highly-successful French film Les Intouchables. Dell (Kevin Hart) is a black ex-con in need of work. Phillip (Bryan Cranston) is a wealthy author and investor become quadriplegic from a foolish paragliding incident who needs help.

In the film's unavoidable cliché, black man becomes white man's assistant, and the two bond through their differences. While sharing with each other Figaro and Aretha, they become happy buds who easily bridge the considerable racial and economic gulfs.

What makes this comedy work is the obvious respect between the leads and a sincerity about the need to appropriate other cultures for the bounty they offer in different perspectives and temperaments. Hart has never been better playing a smart street guy from The Bronx; Cranston is magnetic with the simple use of his face, a great one that deserves all the closeups director Neil Burger can offer.

Although the stereotypical differences between the two characters could have led to outrageous melodrama, as in the recent Green Book, the filmmakers are more interested in the reality of a rich man being moved by an ex-con, and an underprivileged underachiever finding dignity and prosperity in a world never meant to be his.

The lyrical moments like getting high on weed and watching opera for the first time earn our admiration rather than scorn for formula worshiping. As always, the leads take the lead in taking us to realistic challenges that race and wealth usually move us to whether we are ready or not.

Don't be afraid of stereotypes and clichés. The setups are acceptable because the film sees the humanity rolling on the screen in the form of a wheelchair and into our hearts with endearing characters. Be prepared to have a few pleasant tears during 2019's best comedy so far!

Stan & Ollie
(2018)

You'll not see better impersonations--ever.
"We're getting older, but we're not done yet." Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly)

Biopics that depict professional and personal showbusiness relationships can stress the conflicts over the triumphs. Not so director John S. Baird's Stan & Ollie, where the conflict comes in the form of an aging celebrated partnership from the first half of the twentieth century stage and film world.

The most recent biography about actress Gloria Grahame's professional decline in Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool shows still an interest in show-biz has-beens. Stan & Ollie, while lacking the explosive incidents of other biopics, has a slow sweetness like the boys themselves. Sometimes too slow.

Although Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) may have not gotten over Ollie's trying a new partner, and Ollie has not forgiven Stan for sabotaging their relationship with nettlesome producer Hal Roach (from 1926-1940), they remained friends through it all. Coogan and Reilly are pitch perfect as they impersonate and invest gravity in the famous duo. Their impersonations are among the best you will ever see.

In the early 50's their salad days are behind them as they start an uncomfortable Brit tour to such hot spots as Glasgow, Worthing, and Newcaastle, hoping to get a film contract as they go. Although they begin to get fuller houses after painful promotions, they still are artifacts compared with zany new duos like Abbot & Costello.

The film audience gets two for one with the charming wives, Ida Laurel (Nina Arianda) and Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson), whose banter is at times caustic and at others admiring, a little like the boys themselves. Although sometimes the girls will say what the shy boys repress, no one steps on another-the ensemble works together in harmony on stage and off.

The joy is watching Coogan's impeccable timing, underplaying to inspired Reilly's flamboyant but sweet reactions. True to this duo's enduring dynamic, Stan writes the gags and Ollie has the right reactions.

As joyful as the routines are, the enjoyment they have in each other reveals the secret to their success: respect for each other and a pleasure in their harmony. In fact, the film shows how much any professional partnership can learn from the successful connection of a slow-on-the-wit Laurel and an imperious Hardy.

Although the film is largely centered on their later career in the early 1950's, which they try to revive with the Brit tour, their successful younger routines will satisfy Laurel and Hardy fans. Several skits are taken from their history; even the famous piano challenge substitutes a large trunk careening down the stairs. Where in their younger days they would have done Sisyphus with the piano, for the film it is a disposable trunk.

Coogan and Reilly reprising the duo's dance routines is as satisfying as seeing Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor burning up the screen. Although the team's simple plots and routines may not lead to film history stardom, these two loving comics will leave you feeling pretty good about old comedy and enduring partnerships.

Take that Martin and Lewis.

Glass
(2019)

McAvoy is marvelous.
M. Night Shyamalan's Glass, the third in Shyamalan's Eastrail 177 trilogy after Unbreakable (2000) and Split (2016), breaks into fragments of story line that the director, in his classic style, ties up through twists that partially put the pieces together. Although James McAvoy's multiple split personalities are more bearable than in Split, and we do get into his psyche better, the character still confounds as his parts elide and crash up against each other.

As chief psychiatrist Ellie (Sarah Paulson) deals with three sociopaths who think themselves super heroes, the common denominator is traumas from childhood that never leave and do contribute to the adult's aggressive behavior. This disclosure is made multiple times in the film---unnecessarily.

In addition to McAvoy's many personalities, David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a former security who should not be imprisoned in an asylum, is committed to arresting those McAvoy wackos while Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), a comic book fanatic, acts like a super villain right off the pages.

The director's homage to comic book culture is a bit late since comic book super heroes have peopled the pop cult scene for almost 20 years.

I'm making more sense than Shyamalan, for the basic story centers on the three inmates freeing themselves from the hospital and themselves. The sterile and lonely hospital might evoke Silence of the Lambs except that Hannibal Lecter is so much more developed than these one-dimensional, pulp heroes.

In addition, Lambs doesn't have to rely on plot twists to create an atmosphere of dread and fear. Agent Starling (Jody Foster) and Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) fully embody the good and evil, no one dimension for them.

McAvoy should receive some award for his seamless trips to his character's personalities. Willis and Jackson are underused, and perhaps that's my dilemma. Glass would make much more sense and have more intrigue if there were more of their characters. But then there would be more split characters to deal with. Enough already.

"This is not a cartoon. This is the real world." Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson)

See all reviews