jdesando

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Reviews

Ghahreman
(2021)

A sure Oscar nominee from Iran. It's good.
"Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving." Iago to Cassio in Othello.

Modern Iranian society, with its challenging urban Shiraz, is the subject of auteur writer/director, Asghar Farhadi's A Hero. At a bit over two hours, the story of a hapless sign writer and calligrapher caught in a deception spirals into one of the greatest punishments of all in Iran, loss of reputation. In this case, Rahim (Amir Jadidi) partially deserves the loss but to an excessive degree by Western standards.

The ultimate disgrace is to have his peccadillos revealed in social media, where his transgressions like dealing with a loan shark or being with a single woman leave him vulnerable to gossip and without a job. Hard enough to land work after two years in prison for the debt he can't repay and being shamed by his debtor.

The streets and homes are narrow, no doubt in part to shield from the intense heat; such conditions can serve as figurative for the suffocating media and poverty, both of which are common in the Mideast. But then again, A Hero could be set in middle-class USA as well.

The title carries metaphoric baggage, especially with Rahim's son, Siavish (Saleh Karimael), whose speech impediment his father uses to improve his own reputation and convince authorities of his innocence. Such moves alternately repel and ingratiate him, in no small way because he has a pleasant visage and a smile that after a while becomes sinister as he tries to get through his misfortunes and misdeeds with it.

A Hero is a slice of Iranian life whose heft is supplied by modern relentless social media reporting, a cautionary tale about anyone in any society today who tries to hide from public scrutiny. Nothing less than reputation rides on it.

"Reputation, reputation, reputation! Oh, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial." Cassio in Othello.

Flugt
(2021)

Masterful docu-animation. Look for it at Oscar time.
Fleeing Taliban's Afghanistan in the latter part of the last century would seem the proper subject for film or video, capturing the reality of flight from oppression to freedom. Actually, in Flee, a documentary-animation with shades of color and earth tones works even better because the reality is in the narration of unspeakable horrors lived by protagonist Amin Nowabi at several stages of his life and experienced by the viewer not distracted by film's visual reality.

Amin's quarter-century friendship with director Jonas Poher Rasmussen helps him confess honestly to the single camera about long suppressed hurt. The animation objectively captures the pain he suffers recounting the journey to freedom and recapturing his love of life.

Young Amin travels with his mother, brother, and two sisters with unscrupulous traffickers and corrupt police for months to arrive in freedom physically and psychologically damaged, separated from each other for years to come. The narration is impeccably understated as it lets the story collect the audience's grief and pity out of the documentary's reality.

Amin's story moves from idyllic, brightly lit youthful days in Kabul (similarly sketched in Kenneth Branagh's recollection of his youth in Belfast) through the darkly harrowing journey on land and sea to land his life finally now in Copenhagen, buying a house, and coming out with his partner to family and the world in a salutary note of hope for refugees everywhere at any time. The price has been enormous in lost lives and lost youth.

All is not animation because interspersed is library footage of the Russian Afghanistan invasion and speeches by former President Mohammad Najibullah. Such reality checks make sure audience is not lulled into animation's chief compromiser-its own unreality.

Amin himself may be experiencing fictionalized reminiscence even though events seem to reflet a terror that did happen and can only be imagined years later.

Flee is a masterful amalgam of animation, real-live photography, and history recounted partially from a terrible journey's reality and a hero's struggling memory and imagination. You'll understand our collective confusion about Afghanistan and our abandoning it. You'll also understand if Flee is Oscar nominated in categories such as animation and international. It's all good.

Doraibu mai kâ
(2021)

A worthy Oscar entry, another Japanese cinema triumph.
"The melancholy unity between the living and the dead" (James Joyce, "The Dead")

Japan's entry into the 2022 Oscars, Ryusuke Hamaguchi's Drive My Car, is a three-hour romance of quiet sentiment, depicting celebrated actor and director Yûsuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a cool 47-year-old happily married to successful TV writer Oto (Reika Kirishima). Their love is intense enough to last the whole movie, if only in recollection after she dies, and he thinks about their relationship, which was highlighted by her ability to drum up erotic short stories when she, astride him, is about to have orgasm.

Less exotic is his growing appreciation of assigned driver Misaki (Tôko Miura) during his theater-directing job. Writer-director Hamaguchi and writer Takamasa Oe craft an intricate story of Yusuke's grief as he travels to enlightenment with the taciturn help of Misaki, whose own tale of grief helps him reconcile with his wife's absence.

Yusuke's professional reticence makes his relationships with his actors a fascinating distributed exposition in which he quietly coaches and admonishes them in equal measure. Along the way we learn about acting.

Throughout he tries to reconcile his wife's many adulteries with his willingness to accept them as his price for keeping her when she was alive and later in his memory. His reconciliation with his not confronting her about the infidelities is another chapter in his ongoing confession and purgation.

Drive My Car is no simple rom-com; in fact, there is no comedy, just an eccentric romantic connection between the living and the dead (see Joyce's opening quote), that keeps the aud enthralled with characters even during lengthy rides in Yusuke's vintage red Saab, those journeys being at once indulgent and overly long to figurative of his mental journey away from his grief.

Driving My Car is largely set in modern, if not somewhat bland, Hiroshima, which figuratively enhances the theme of reconstruction and reconciliation. His directing Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, while its own themes of problematic longings for a seductive young woman and home displacement aid the film's theme of art's possibly cathartic possibilities.

I fear I'm rambling, but, then, I'm trying to grapple with the story-writing prize at the latest Cannes and possible winner of an Oscar. It is one film that demands one revisit it for a fuller appreciation of its art and that you go at least once to see another example of Japan's enduring contribution to classic world cinema.

Scream
(2022)

A successful requel and fun.
"You know that part in horror movies?"

Multiple times in this new Scream, a character shouts that statement and goes ahead to fulfill the expectation, such as answering the phone only to be confronted by a very bad voice that has wielded a knife or two in his time or going alone into a basement. So goes this successful requel or remake or reboot or sequel, whatever, to the 1996 Wes Craven slasher monument, Scream. Only no Wes this fifth time, and no problem this time.

Not only is Scream an enjoyable horror movie on its own, but it also enfolds other slashers like Halloween with a deft touch by directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett and writers James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick. Scream lampoons the slasher genre, with its ready-made tropes, in a way that freshens the genre while still being slavishly derivative.

It's a meta-take on the endurance and popularity of films that titillate and horrify while they induce appreciative laughs, just as my buds and I screamed out in delight in an almost empty auditorium (it was matinee and COVID time, after all).

Solidifying the connection with past Screams and other relics is the return of immortal players like Neve Campbell as heroine Sidney Prescott, Courtenay Cox as TV anchor Gale Riley, and David Arquette as former-sheriff Dewey Riley. These three veterans show the skills of seasoned actors, by contrast with the much greener slasher fodder like sisters Tara (Jenna Ortega) and Sam (Melissa Barrera). The vets viscerally connect the past to the present.

The meta-satire of the genre and mixing time and formula could have been overly complicated but turns out to be a felicitous gathering reminding us of "elevated" horror classics like The Babadook.

Have fun with family and friends at your local theater. Don't be afraid--Scream (2022) makes you anxiously await the next ingenious requel: "Would you like to play a game?"

The 355
(2022)

A genre-busting female ensemble spy film that compares well with the likes of Gunpowder Milkshake.
When you're a loner CIA agent like Mace (Jessica Chastain), and an assignment takes you to places like Colombia and Shanghai, you go with no worries about leaving loved ones behind because you have none. Your other female kick-ass operatives in the gender-conscious spy film, The 355, like Khadijah (Lupita Nyong'o) and Graciela (Penelope Cruz), have much love and family to leave behind, but, hey, catching elusive international bad guys is what they do--that heart-rending stuff lends depth to an otherwise skillfully formulaic spy film with an ensemble of smart females you end up wanting to see in a sequel, maybe not so much Mission Impossible.

They're after saving the world from those baddies with a device that would conquer that world. It's a small hard drive and can neutralize the most hidden communication system ever. That device is just the familiar, formulaic MacGuffin, for our pleasure is seeing these good girls take down such devious good/bad guys like Nick (Sebastian Stan), among the many men who still plague tender-hearted women, despite the advances for independence female heroes have in the last decade or two.

So much for the now-dustbin Charlie's Angels with its cutie pies, low-level intrigue, and blatant sexism.

And so it goes around the world with the bad guys continuing to shoot poorly an get beaten up by women half their size. It's all in good fun for viewers like me and my friends who can shout and hoot in empty theaters as we encourage these robust women to take down foolish men who live in another era of male dominance.

Let The 355 stand proudly next to Atomic Blonde, Wonder Woman, Black Widow, The Old Guard, and my fav, Gunpowder Milkshake, as they shake up a once male-dominated genre. And it's a generous amount of a good-time away from your COVID-dominated home.

The Tragedy of Macbeth
(2021)

A classy contribution to the best movie of the year.
Joel Coen, sans brother Ethan after about eighteen collaborative ventures, triumphs with his new Tragedy of Macbeth. Coen keeps essential lines (it is Shakespeare's shortest play anyway) and doesn't let the magnificent set design overpower the first-rate performances.

While Denzel Washington as Macbeth lacks the grace and sonority of Olivier or Fassbender, he is the appropriately weary wearer of the heavy crown. He plays Macbeth right by being vigorous before he slays Duncan but drained after. He refrains less from being henpecked to accepting his Lady's (Frances McDormand, Coen's wife) advice through her twisted logic and, famously, the witches' supernatural, duplicitous urging.

Like Welles's Othello, he is a military man who follows the logic of defense and destiny. Once committed to a cause, blind obedience to fate is the only route. Like Colin Powell, he is wrong and fate will brook no other route than infamy.

For her part, Lady Macbeth is more into working it with a slow force that makes them more a business team than a tag team. The stark, minimalistic set design, with its Wellesean towering ceilings, sharp edges, bare walls, and menacing bright and dark interiors punctuated by light shafts that concentrate evil on its protagonist, has the power and purity of an avenging angel, a lonely film-noir ambience tracking the road to dusty death.

The lighting and 1.19:1 aspect ratio, almost square, echo the stark, unrelenting world of Dreyer, Bergman, and Welles' 1948 Macbeth cinema.

The iambic pentameter and its accompanying perfect wording are there, and you may miss some, but, hey, he's civilization's greatest writer. Washington's contribution is making this rich language clear and comprehensible. The words of Tomorrow and Tomorrow resonate today for, say, leaders who at the end realize their greatness is an illusion trampled by relentlessly-marching time.

A classy contribution to the best movies of 2021 and Shakespeare's glorious tragedies.

The King's Man
(2021)

Laughs and history make a satisfying experience.
"Real power is not found running off to war. Real power lies in understanding who it is you're truly fighting, and how they can be defeated." Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes)

The tongue is not too far in the cheek with the semi-serious King's Man starring Ralph Fiennes as the dapper but deadly Duke of Oxford, organizer of the sophisticated spy agency that in previous iterations was more satirical of spy stories. In this origin story, much of the film weaves history around WW I into a fiction about a few good men and women trying to stop the march to war.

The major historical figures are Kaiser Wilhelm, King George, and Tsar Nicholas-all played entertainingly by Tom Hollander. Not to be missed is Rhys Ifans as Rasputin, a diabolical force in getting the Soviet Union to withdraw from the war, to the delight of Germany and the dismay of England.

When Rasputin battles with Oxford, the screen is alive with Russian-style dancing-swordplay, Rasputin's lusts, and plain old good dialogue. Director Matthew Vaughn allows his actors to express themselves wildly but with a modicum of Brit-like decorum fitting of the balance between dark history and playful replay.

Besides the memorable Rasputin swordplay, in the final act, when Oxford uses a new-fangled parachute to storm the supreme villain's high mountain hide out, the stunt work is just short of breathless, coupled with CGI to give a Bondian feel to the spy shenanigans.

I was pleasantly surprised by the imaginative re-creation of history and the low-key humor, so evocative of the Brit stereotype. More than one commentator has suggested how apt Fiennes would be as the new Bond. I don't know about that, but Fiennes sure does know his way around the screen.

"We are the first independent intelligence agency. Refined but brutal, civilized but merciless." Duke of Oxford.

Passing
(2021)

Dynamic period piece and winner for talented actress, writer, director Rebecca Hall.
"We're all passing for something or other, aren't we?" Irene (Tessa Thompson)

Director Rebecca Hall's successful full-length debut, Passing, shows her artistic inclination to depict women on the verge of breaking away. Irene is a Black woman in the 1920's who could "pass" for white but just spends some time in the white world, being served and accepted in part because she is light skinned.

Now, her friend from her youth, Clare, consciously passes for white, and marries a racist who would kill if he knew his wife were Black. Although nothing shattering happens through most of the story, the racial divide is pronounced between white uptown and Harlem, where Irene and her husband, Brian, a doctor, live in a brownstone with a black maid and the two children he tries to prepare for a racist world they have yet to overcome.

As Clare continues to mingle with Irene's Black social life, Irene quietly assesses Clare's free-spirit and seems gently attracted to Clare. Yet, those feelings are Hall's quiet way of emphasizing the multifaced societal changes in a now truly reconstructed way.

Hall uses a crisp black and white image to accentuate the stark racial differences and the sterile laboratory-like world of incremental societal change. It's also an effective period enhancer. The title "Passing" carries multiple meanings fraught with the dark and light of good clashing with evil.

I couldn't help thinking of Fitzgerald's Gatsby, himself an interloper having romantic notions ill-suited to a society he crashes with dire consequences. Hall has caught the ironies and ambiguities of a society in change.

It isn't all pretty but generally a gorgeous palette with which promising neophyte Hall paints. Isn't it the truth: "I'm beginning to believe that no one is ever completely happy, free, or safe"? Irene

One of the best movies of the year.

Licorice Pizza
(2021)

One of the best nostalgic romances of the year by a pre-eminent filmmaker.
Licorice Pizza is the name of a defunct record store chain in '70's Southern California as well as the name of Paul Thomas Anderson's newest kinetic, entertaining, nostalgia-ridden teen romance. Like the chain, this '70's retro is a valentine to a bygone era of burgers and pot, pimples and stupidity, the province of restless youths looking for life in all the wrong places.

Anderson's star child is Alana (Alana Haim in her film debut), as attractive a heroine as could ever occupy not the prettiest face but the most charming. She's 25, and he is a fifteen-year-old Gary (Cooper Hoffman), a hustler in the Anderson universe like his oilman (There Will be Blood, played by Daniel Day- Lewis) and his cult leader (Master), played by Philip Seymour Hoffman now transformed by his son, Cooper, into a charming Gary Valentine winning the heart of 10-years-older Alana.

As the two leads navigate the waterbed hustle and the still-emerging film industry, the dark of which is signified by their hanging out in the porn-capitol valley spot, Tarzana. Anderson has fun spoofing memorable '70's films like Shampoo by having Bradley Cooper mimic playboy stylist Jon Peters, whose romance of Barbra Streisand could be made into a complete satire itself. Sean Penn as motor-cycling Jack Holden (a stand-in for William Holden) almost steals the pic from Cooper. In both cases, Anderson nicely contrasts the seasoned stars with the two lead neophytes. All are better for Anderson's genial casting.

Mostly, this charming retrospective captures a visually-alluring early-'70's Hollywood and the eternal search of youth looking for love wherever it shows up. Licorice Pizza is colorful and entertaining, capturing, as Anderson's buddy Tarantino did in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the funky, dope-addled, creative Southern California of the '70's.

It should be on everyone's top ten of the year lists, and it is.

Don't Look Up
(2021)

A fun Netflix evening with witty Adam Mckay's satire of our failings as deniers.
If you're an anthropologist, pop culturist, or ordinary film critic like me, there's something to smile about in the satire, Don't Look Up. A comet is hurtling toward earth, with six months before impact. Low-level astronomers Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and doctoral candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) discovered the menace and now try to convince everyone the danger is real.

The heart of director-writer Adam McKay's spoof is the world's unwillingness to accept the scientific facts. Right off you can supply the figurative touchstone of COVID 19, a fact that groups like anti-vaxers and alt-righters deny despite the stats and scientific facts. Of the myriad other deniers, the fraudulent presidential election and climate-changing deniers come immediately to mind. And those alt-fact supporters head the pack.

McKay is right at home in satire with such successes as Talladega Nights (NASCAR drivers), Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling teaching about fiscal disaster in The Big Short, and silly anchormen in Anchorman. Maybe just a little too at home, for the satirical hits in Don't Look Up are too many to look at in depth.

Still, he hits the target with President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep), whose blond barrel curls are exceeded in goofiness by the photo of her and Steven Seagal on the oval desk. Mark Rylance's smarmy tech CEO could be Mark or Elon, take your pick-his self-serving humanism is known to all. Rylance's inspiring "businessman" is perhaps the best satirical character as he takes over the earth-saving project and thereby dooms it to failure.

McKay does well alluding to the corrupt denials in almost every part of planetary life. When Dr. Mindy goes on national TV to decry the denials and Kate considers that the anchors and POTUS care only about their Q ratings, Howard Beal's "had enough" lurks in the memory of those who like trenchant satire of the media. That Dr. Mindy is also committing adultery with one of the hosts, Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett), adds plenty of grist for McKay's mill.

The racist pilot of the rescue rocket, Benedict Drask (Ron Perlman), meant to obliterate the comet, evokes memories of Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove and every other jingoist redneck you have ever seen.

Actually, there are many other examples like Jonah Hill's Trumpian chief of staff-just too many for my typically minimalist reviews. Yet, that may be my point-too many spot-on satires to be easily digested in one sitting. An embarrassment of riches, so to speak. Enjoy a Netflix evening cataloging our cultural failings.

The Matrix Resurrections
(2021)

A reboot that makes sense because of an old-fashioned love affair.
"No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself." Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne)

Although I am not the best person to ask about what happened in the three previous installments of The Matrix, the new high-concept thriller The Matrix Resurrections makes some sense because writer-director Lana Wachowski (helming solo without sister Lilly) and her colleagues have crafted a saner story with a classic romance (well, maybe classic only a bit). The usual slo-mo bullets, shape shifting, and outrageous homage to virtual reality are there but framed around the reunion of Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity/Tiffany (Carrie Anne Moss).

Although the duo is resurrected from their deaths in Revolutions, how the filmmakers justify the two resurrections I'll leave to sci-fi geeks who eat up this meta-commentary on virtual reality. Because of Neo's longing to reunite with Trinity, I found myself analyzing how Reeve's previously wooden responses now seem genuine. It's because he has such a low-affect anyway, that snooze is transformed into a deeply-felt emotion coming out of a place only love could make surface.

For those who care at all about the history of cinema, approach Matrix Revolutions as a reboot with new takes on its own concept that itself is unwieldly and at times inscrutable. If you are into this Christopher-Nolan-like mind-puzzle, you'll delight in the twists and turns that say Lana Wachowski is leaving the previous three installments for new territory. Then again, it's old hat, love and all that, but it feels good on my head.

"Nothing comforts anxiety like a little nostalgia." Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen)

The Lost Daughter
(2021)

Director and star should be Oscar nominated. It's that good.
On a summer vacation in Greece, Leda (Olivia Coleman), a 48-year-old professor from the states, confronts a raucous family with a young mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson), whose temperamental child reminds Leda of the challenges she faced as a young mother. Maggie Gyllenhaal's first outing as a writer-director is a triumph of subtle feminism underlying a search for the disturbing layers of motherhood, including abandonment and infidelity.

Gyllenhaal displays an acceptance of life's vagaries with goodwill and a subtle dread for the disappointments lying ahead. Coleman's Leda is charming and disagreeable in almost equal measure. While she observes her neighbors' frequently lame attempts at motherhood and marriage, Leda is slowly reminded of her own infidelity and child abandonment issues, expertly played as a young Leda by Jessie Buckley. Coleman navigates between now and then with the self-possession of a scholar used to the ambiguities of living and loving.

The story is not overly-complex or subtle because the characters are deliciously confused and downright naughty as folks in their late twenties are wont to be. Never are Gyllenhaal's and Coleman's attitudes about disappointment in their fellow human beings; rather director and star are as intrigued as they are perplexed about how life turns in on itself.

Coleman won the Oscar for The Favourite, a decidedly raucous set long ago. The Lost Daughter is a contemporary drama that shows her other acting chops. She will be Oscar nominated and deservedly so. Director Maggie Gyllenhaal should also be, an extraordinary occurrence for her first time out.

È stata la mano di Dio
(2021)

A lyrical reverie about his Neapolitan youth by an Italian director.
"Cinema is a distraction, reality is second-rate." Fellini (overheard in in this movie)

As Oscar-winning director Paolo Sorrentino's stand-in, Fabietto (Filippo Scotti), comes of age in The Hand of God, he experiences the vagaries and beauties of Neapolitan life, not the least of which is his growing love of cinema. While half way through he will experience a life-changing tragedy, he will throughout be an observer of Naples with its Fellini-like freaks and gorgeous gulf-coast scenery. In a way, this is Sorrentino's Amarcord.

The Hand of God is a title derived from the description of soccer god, Diego Maradona, and his magical, controversial goal in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal. It also could refer to the Sistine Chapel's fingers, and many other references that bolster this luminous description of Sorrentino's early life in Naples.

When Fabietto sees his aunt, Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri), naked on occasion, Sorrentino shows the emerging appreciation of sexuality in a young-man's sensibility and the parallel lushness of Italy, whose food is legendary and sensuality eternal. Both his older brother Marchino (Marlon Joubert) and he are transfixed by the eroticism, which undoubtedly creeps into all of Sorrentino's work.

Patrizia fuels the erotic fantasies of Fabietto and his older brother Marchino (Marlon Joubert), an aspiring actor too conventionally handsome to be of interest to the great Fellini.

It's as if Sorrentino is saying that these images helped him form his cinematic persona and lifelong affection for his youth in a culturally-rich country. The appearance of a Neapolitan folklore hero, a child monk in a sumptuous palazzo with a deteriorating chandelier, is just one of the many images Sorrentino uses to emphasize the wealthy culture he grew up in.

In addition to the tragedy, Fabietto is most moved by an encounter at a shoot in the historic Galleria Umberto I with director Antonio Capuano (Ciro Capano), his future mentor, who explains cinema with a hard-nosed philosophy that incorporates individuality as the driving force. Upon giving himself to courage and perseverance, as director Capuano advises, Fabio will be a hope of Italian cinema, incorporating the lyrical jumble of happy images from his tender youth to the contemplative awareness in his growing years.

From the Felliniesque characters of his youth-circus-like fat women, goddess-like nymphs, and bold friends like Armando (Biaggio Manna-a John Belushi type), Fabio will break the bounds of domestic life and teen-age longings to strike out into a cinematic world that promises to be at least a distraction rather than a second-rate experience.

Sorrentino has been touched by the hand of God.

Nightmare Alley
(2021)

Handsome neo-noir thriller remake: lush design and talented cast with magician director. Fun for the holidays.
"Is it a beast, or is it a man? You're in luck, because tonight, you will see him feed! Come on in and find out. Is he a man... or beast?" Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe)

There's not much a filmmaker can do to destroy the interest audiences have remaking the film-noir genre: the corruptible good guy, the seductive femme fatale, the dark alleys, the glitzy gates to hell represented by carnival shows, murder, and morally-diseased humanity. All these are staples and of enduring appeal to audiences titillated by seeing the dark side.

Is there room for a better noir in remake? Case in point: Nightmare Alley-directed by a cinematic magician, Guillermo del Toro-adds a colorful canvas of sideshow splendor, occupied by Felliniesque carnies and specimens, taking money and goodness from gullible audiences, frequently rubes but occasionally swells who left their scruples back in their estates.

Bradley Cooper joins Bogey, Mitcham, and the many other actors who played flawed heroes like gifted grifter Stanton Carlisle. He joins the carnival to have a roof and food. He discovers his talent for illusion, be it sending electricity through his innocent assistant Molly (Rooney Mara) or bilking wealthy widowers like sinner Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins).

It is a joy to watch the charismatic lead descend into the hell of deceit by misdirection just as it is to see wealthy head Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchette) perform the femme fatale duties icy with class and charm. Together they fleece the wealthy so completely that some take to suicide after losing everything including their sanity.

Visually Nightmare Alley is a feast of colorful set design (it is a carnival after all) and perfectly modulated light to make you feel you are there at the beginning of WWII. The world is in turmoil for a beast who will murder millions. As Nightmare Alley shows, Hitler is not the only beast roaming who could as well be Stan, our man: "I am prepared to offer you folks one last chance to witness this supreme oddity. Where did it come from? ... gone wrong somehow in maternal womb. Not fit for living." Clem

Nightmare Alley is a pleasure to see and hear but a reminder that humankind's ability to foster evil is eternal, albeit fascinating.

Spider-Man: No Way Home
(2021)

Super holiday entertainment loaded with visual and spiritual meaning.
Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to Peter (Tom Holland): "The problem is you trying to live two different lives. The longer you do it, the more dangerous it becomes!"

Notwithstanding the "home" in the title, the exciting new Spider-Man: No Way Home is more about the existential need to create one's own identity, the Christian need to give up a life in order to gain it, and the human need for a second chance. Many super-hero movies continue to emphasize the hero's need to recover a parent or child even more than the need to sacrifice for the good of humankind.

As Peter Parker (Tom Holland) struggles with the attention he gets because Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) revealed his identity, he gets involved with Dr. Strange to erase his super-hero identity from everyone's memory. Fooling with Mother Nature never is good in these hyper-active fantasies, and it's true as Peter tries to get Dr. Strange to reverse his initial memory-erasing spell in order to remain in the minds of those he loves.

Besides, what director Jon Watts and his writers are really interested in is pulling the three Spidies together (Holland, Andrew Garfield, Tobey Maguire) to remediate former bad boys like The Sandman (Thomas Hayden Church), Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), Electro (Jamie Foxx), and Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe). Dr. Strange clears the way between parallel dimensions to let each Spidey's version of villains to come together for their cleansing.

The imaginative and entertaining concept of getting these characters together proves not to be confusing but revealing of their generous natures and the benign fraternity of Spider-Men, adding the collaboration motif into their otherwise solitary lives.

Although the digital gymnastics are impressive, beyond those is an attempt to flesh out character for both good and bad boys. Discoveries abound without super sentimentality or long exposition. Because the filmmakers have taken care to load meaning into most dialogue, the revealing third act takes the plot to dizzying heights while character spills out along the way.

As more is found out about the heroes and the villains, the long road back to normalcy for Peter seems just about right, filled as it is with triumphs that come from working as a team (not a normal Spidey thing to do) to suffering the loss of dear ones to a better cause. It's a coming of age at any age and a satisfying display of character development that might be envied by indie films everywhere whose bread and butter is a similar attempt to show humans at their worst and best.

Super holiday fare, yes; challenging, yes; amazed I am that comic-book stuff holds meaning amidst its visual splendor, yes.

C'mon C'mon
(2021)

Superior acting with insights about intergenerational jousting both edifying and disturbing.
Don't let this intriguing and dynamic indie slip past you. C'mon C'mon stars Juaquin Phoenix, so you know it's going to be cerebral and sensitive, bur you may not know how good his co-stars are-Gaby Hoffman (Viv) and Woody Norman (Jesse). After admiring Will Smith's performance as dynamic and flawed dad Richard Williams in King Richard, I was pleased also to see another about parenting, this time an uncle, Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix), and his nephew, Jesse, engaged in a coming of age for both parties. Along with mother Viv, this acting triumvirate eclipses any other in the year's best films.

Jesse is a precocious nine-year-old disturbed by his father's placement in a mental hospital. As Viv's brother, Johnny, takes over for mom while she attends to dad, Johnny forms a unique bond with Jesse, often verbally parrying while learning how to parent without being a parent. Johnny is as inept at parenting as Jesse is wise about being a pre-teen, asking probing questions such as why he's single and has no children. The questions Jesse asks of his uncle are insightful, surprisingly frank, and way beyond his grade level.

Traveling around the country from NYC to cities like New Orleans, Johnny gets to ply his trade of recording youngsters for radio about the future. Because many of these subjects are not of Johnny and Jesse's class and means, their answers provide a window into reality that reveals the optimism of youth with its ability to survive even these worst of times.

Jesse picks up the hobby of recording natural sounds and interviewing, even if it is just himself. His insights into the natural world help Johnny consider more than just child-development theories.

At the same time, Johnny treats Jesse as if he were much older and wiser than could ever be expected. As in Seinfeld, nothing much happens except the interior growth and emerging love from the principals. Writer-director Mike Mills makes us feel connected to this rarefied world with an unobtrusive black and white photography and a naturalism the seeps out of the unkempt city streets and unadorned dialogue.

Additionally add a stellar performance by Gaby Hoffman as the mom who stays connected by cell phone with spot-on advice for Johnny, who experiences first hand the dizzying responsibilities of temporarily guarding a precocious child.

C'mon C'mon is a holiday dramedy that will make you feel good about the challenges and unknowns of rearing children, especially the gifted ones who will teach you how to cope with the future in the present. And that naturalistic acting-well, experience it and become impatient with the methods in other films out there that don't measure up.

West Side Story
(2021)

Brilliant remake, satisfying in every cinematic way.
If you consider tick, tick . . . Boom and Annette to be leading musicals of this Oscar season, then you haven't seen Steven Spielberg's West Side Story, as perfect a remake or could-be stand-alone musical as possible. His film is a model of cinematic excellence incorporating the iconic music from Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim with choreography that respects the sheer brilliance of Jerome Robbins' original.

Not only does Spielberg honor the great original from 1961, but he also honors a diversified 2021 take with more Latino actors in the Sharks gang than the original. In addition, he includes more Spanish without subtitles than most directors would dare. Such changes lend realism and charm with a fearlessness that dares the audience to immerse itself in the upper-West side of 1958 Manhattan being demolished to make way for Lincoln Center and put behind it the crumbling structures of post-war decay.

In fact, the digitized rubble-strewn streets are an apt metaphor for the war-ravaged European WWII stage-no one escaped the spirit of Nazi-induced genocide that itself reflected the tribal hatred of the Jets and the Sharks. Lincoln Center was the White call to reconstruction still blind to the racism people of color suffered then and to a lesser degree now.

The heart of this lyrical tragedy based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is not the masterful digitization of NYC undergoing a tumultuous physical change but rather a decay of relationships between Whites and Puerto Ricans and with the former, mostly protestants and the latter embittered by the encroaching growth of Catholics. All of which prefaces our contemporary march toward diversity.

The timeless elements, which Spielberg and Shakespeare honor throughout, are anchored by the impetuousness of youth whose passion and abandon spell bliss and doom in each kiss. As the original Maria, Natalie Wood was lovely and petite, but Rachel Zegler carries an authenticity and innocence that original directors Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise would have envied. Richard Beymer as Tony was less talented than the current Ansel Elgort, but that's not saying much for the bland Elgort. Having Rita Moreno in a new role as the sage pharmacy owner Valentina is not only shrewd casting and innovation but also lifts the story from overbearing youthful stupidity to wisdom.

Spielberg's West Side Story may well win the Oscar for best picture of the year, but, no matter, it is now the litmus test for great musicals that rise above cultural neglect to showcase directorial genius and dynamic changing times. Go to your theater and immerse yourself in the best American cinema can do.

King Richard
(2021)

Best Actor Oscar? The film is a cut-above most sports biopics.
"Venus and Serena gon' shake up this world." Richard Williams (Will Smith)

We know they shake it up plenty as they become the premiere tennis players in the world, the products partly of their father's ambition for them and his unorthodox approach to coaching. Yet, tennis in not the real subject of this charming biopic; it is about parenting skills that pay off and an actor who has the finest role of his successful career.

Will Smith does what I hoped he would-act believably the role of Richard Williams, infamous, overbearing father, rude, brash, and loving and insightful. Although at a point or two Smith pushes the accent far beyond what the end credits show of the real Richard's, he maintains our respect for his accomplishments and his wife's, Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis), both for bringing up model citizens and champions.

Richard had a vision for his two prodigies, even before they were born; King Richard shows the cost of that dream as they relentlessly practice, remain first academically in their classes, and have Richard ignore them when decisions are made. The film is expert at showing the dimensions of parenting, both the good and the bad.

The film also comments on the currently-popular topic of "burnout," about which Richard is adamant he won't let happen as the vulture promoters begin offering millions for Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and eventually Serena (Demi Singleton) but with overwhelming obligations that could cut in to school or bring on drugs.

Although the story is well-known and follows a standard sports formula, director Reinaldo Marcus Green and writer Zach Baylin keep it fast moving and realistic by playing to the characters rather than the competitions. The filmmakers, however, have an extended scene of Venus playing the world's top seed that is a tense and as exciting as any other I have seen.

Richard is a complex father who gives love through coaching and encouraging study and prayer for his daughters (he has five). On the other hand, he doesn't always listen to his daughters or his wife, is irascible and at a few times, irrational. Yet because he loves deeply and sincerely and doesn't always let his ego get in the way, King Richard becomes a story of respect for family and determination to be the best in the world. And maybe the best actor?

The Power of the Dog
(2021)

Modern post-civil war Western with sensibility clashing with out-dated masculinity. A luxury oater that gives you plenty of time to think.
"Bronco Henry told me that a man was made by patience in the odds against him." Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch)

It's 1925 in the wilds of Montana, and Phil Burbank patiently raises cattle with his brother George (Jesse Plemons). As different as the two centuries, George is a genteel new kind of cowboy where Phil carries the rugged wild West with a secret that makes him more 20th than 19th century.

Into their robust, masculine ranch come the outsiders, who in literature and film usually change things. Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), new bride of George, and her effeminate son, Peter (Kodi Smidt-McPhee), come to live at the ranch. Phil initially accepts neither, but soon takes a paternal attitude toward the boy.

The new West has secrets of a progressive nature in Phil's hiding smut magazines of nude men and of an ancient nature with Rose's alcoholism. The worlds are bound to collide as they both hide their secrets, and the boy begins to take bolder action in defense of his mother against Phil.

Unlike the Old West, this modern one is not about guns but rather cattle and changing sexual mores. The latter proves to be a game changer for everyone as they adjust to the reversal of their notions about masculinity and the emerging role of women. Director Jane Campion, as she did in The Piano, lets her camera linger on the outward expressions of inner struggle and the vast landscape, which promises to bury one's secrets, but doesn't.

Campion has crafted an art film despite the vast plains and mountains by concentrating on the individual actors to tell their stories from the way they look at each other to the way they ride a horse, or don't. The homoeroticism, more pronounced in Brokeback Mountain, lies under the raw masculine, everyday display. While the testosterone is amply present in the recent The Harder They Fall, also a Netflix film, it is muted in this modern everyday life, waiting to be upended by the authentic expression of desire no matter the sexes involved.

The Power of the Dog is a high-class film set in the high plains of early 20th century Montana. The themes of love, sexuality, and allegiance are carefully drawn by the accomplished director, who honors her story with a patience and insight matched only by the majesty of the setting. In theaters then Netflix.

tick, tick...BOOM!
(2021)

Jonathan Larson created Rent; Lin-Manuel and Andrew contribute their genius, also.
"I'm the future of musical theater." Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield)

Director Lin-Manuel Miranda (Tony and Pulitzer-winning creator of Hamilton) shows his genius was not a just one-off. In tick, tick . . .Boom! Hamilton revives the memory of Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield), the creator/composer of Rent, a contemporary rock musical that inspired a new generation of shows for Broadway.

That Larson should die at 35, the night before the preview of Rent, lends a melancholy air to this adaptation of his autobiographical musical and this film's influence by his first failure, Suburbia, inspired by Orwell's 1984.

Tick shows the evolution of Larson's signature realism, a fulfillment of his agent Rosa Stevens's (Judith Light) exhortation to write about what he knows. Poverty, paying rent, facing down rejection, protesting for justice, and HIV friends dying in droves are issues he knows and will exploit in his iconic musical.

Yet for this film, he is promoting his tick . . ., and while the lyrics are uneven and scattered but generally first-rate, it involves a too-large cast including aliens. Although Garfield is gawky and endearing in equal measure, Larson's work has the mentoring of Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford), who I understand, knows something about musicals. Whitford, by the way, does a credible, impressive imagining of Sondheim.

The ticking boom of time in the title has several reference points, not just Larson's impending death but the dynamic change of Broadway Larson ignited. Andrew Garfield does a yeoman's job of giving life to Larson, who has a naivete, energy, and self-centeredness that bespeak the lasting influence he has had on the modern musical.

In some ways, Miranda has done that himself with this exciting, melancholic musical about musicals and the geniuses who lose their lives creating them. Netflix.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife
(2021)

Nostalgic, comic sequel to a great classic. Have fun in a theater.
Just because I was alive for the original 1984 Ghostbusters doesn't mean you young'uns won't enjoy it as much as I do. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is an entertainment for the entire family: It has scary ghosts, nerdy kids, young teen romance, adult romance, and nostalgic special effects as well as equipment like a tricked-out Ectomobile, a portable nuclear particle accelerator, and a ghost trap, to name only a few to delight kids and adults, who may fondly remember analog.

Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) as the science-friendly 12-year-old and her siblings, grandkids of an original Ghostbuster, move to a remote Oklahoma farm, the dilapidated "Dirt" estate. They encounter ghosts, as to be expected because gramps didn't quite finish the ghost-busting job from '84.

The ghosts are a bit goofy (more like out-of-control dogs and marshmallows), and the stakes may not be earth-shattering, but the fun they have trying to capture the critters is a high-spirited chase coupled with a subtle lesson about the importance of family, legacy, and cooperation. The relevance of this classic-based tale is in the notion that working together is an answer to beating back intruders (COVID, anyone?).

Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, and Harold Ramis appear (appropriately Ramis as ghost since he has left us in death to write about them somewhere), not enough but just enough to link the past to the present. This fourth iteration, and certainly the best of the sequels, will make you chuckle, maybe cry a little, scare you a tad, but never bore you.

As adult romancers, Mr. Grooberson (Paul Rudd) and Callie (Carrie Coon) are charming and clueless enough for us to beg for more time with them. Finn Wolfhard (star of Stranger Things) as brother Trevor (just enough of Timothee Chalamet in his look) and the gifted comic kid, Logan Kim, as Podcast will make teens, and us all, quite happy with their shenanigans.

A sweet comic atmosphere prevails over this successful sequel. I hope it's enough to get you back to the theater where hosts serve up comfy seats, knockout sound, and fantasy relief from the pandemic.

Spencer
(2021)

Stewart should be Oscar nominated for skillfully portraying an icon's many sides.
"Excuse me," she says to no one in particular. "I'm looking for somewhere. I have absolutely no idea where I am." Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart)

In the opening sequence of Spencer, Diana is driving herself to the royal estate for a weekend with the relatives. Although she grew up in these parts, she is lost. The figurative aspect of that "lost" is apparent, for the fictional weekend serves well to get us closer to the princess known to the world but not to herself.

Kristen Stewart is Diana and probably her star self, both uncertain how to handle celebrity and in Diana's case, needing true love. She will not get that from Prince Charles, who lectures her on the two personas the job demands, as if splitting himself into two is easy for him.

Timothy Spall plays Major Alistar Gregory, whose job is to keep the photographers and other aliens from the compound and to direct Diana in the ways of tradition. It's that tradition that chokes Diana, literally, as she forces vomiting and generally has an unsuccessful relationship with the food that punctuates the royals' days.

Spall is incomparable as the uptight guardian of the household, barely revealing deeper, softer attitude toward tradition. Director Pablo Larrain (he did similar magic with Jackie and coaxed Natalie Portman to an Oscar nomination) combines the wide perspective shots of the estate with crowding closeups of Diana to show consistently her crushing alienation from the demands of the estate in particular and British tradition in general.

Most rewarding on a dramatic level is the relationship between Diana and her attendant Maggie (Sally Hawkins). Not only do they have a sincere affection for each other, but they also have the best two-hander scene to give the film a much-needed shock. It's a scene to remember.

I would have liked more dialogue to complement the many solitary closeup scenes, but the filmmakers have done their job well. As unstable as Diana may have been, I'd love to have her back.

Belfast
(2021)

One of the best of the year and of Kenneth Branagh's life.
"Go. Go now. Don't look back. I love you, son." Granny (Judi Dench)

You can complain that Kenneth Branagh his filtered his 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) through his own rose-colored revery of the 1969 bloody ethno-nationalist uprising in Belfast, and you'd be right. However, like all of us remembering, that past is most pleasantly remembered through the lens of loving family struggle that binds.

While Branagh doesn't shy away from how the Northern Ireland Troubles between Protestants and Catholics was challenging all families, his endearing portrait of Buddy as a curious and sweet, albeit precocious, school boy for whom the biggest conflicts are figuring out how not to emigrate from Belfast because of the violence and connecting with the elusive little blonde who occupies the top of her class with Buddy.

One of the best movies of the year, Belfast gives scant references to Branagh's eventual rise to the top of his filmmaking class and emphasizes the effect a loving family can have on a small-town lad. Especially nostalgic is his interaction with his Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciaran Hinds), who best represent the benign Belfast world, the one so difficult to leave behind.

Branagh brilliantly chooses a sharp black and white for most of the film, as if to say, "Unlike the color opening, my story will be realistic in a cinematic sense that black and white usually represented in mid-20th century films." Adding a bunch of bad-boy Van Morrison tunes is a perfect surround-sound for the contradictions of Buddy's coming of age in a civil war that is both secular and religious.

The joy of this film is the 9-year-old's warm, nostalgic remembrance of a war-torn land. Belfast confirms the suspicion that those of us lucky enough to grow up in a loving family can survive war and even coronaviruses and become world-renowned filmmakers.

Belfast is one of Kenneth Branagh's best films, and that is saying much.

Last Night in Soho
(2021)

An intoxicating Edger-Wright romp through '60's Soho
"This is London. Someone has died in every room in every building and on every street corner in the city." Ms Collins (Diana Rigg)

In Edgar Wright's Last Night in Soho, young Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie) moves to London from the burbs to study fashion design and die a little in order to live. It happens to the best of us as we come of age, especially when our caldron is the greatest town on earth (at least for me).

Ellie is a young greenhorn fashion-designer wannabe who moves to study in London and boards at Ms. Collins' rooms in Soho, whose greatness expired after the great '60's. Yet somehow, and chalk this up to the magical imagination of writer/director Wright, she is regularly transported, Twilight -Zone style, from this room to the actual 60's Soho and the company of wannabe singer, soulmate, mirror image Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy). Their passionate ambitions are about to meet soul-searing reality in the form of men who want not just them but the power they can wield over them.

This Soho makes Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris a veritable picnic by comparison with a grizzled, white-haired old drinker (60's icon Terence Stamp), who contains much to be learned about the town's bloody business and life itself.

Soho comes alive with Steven Price's score and the on-point 60's soundtrack including Petula Clark's iconic Downtown. Odile Dicks-Mireaux's vintage costumes make you want to get a plane tic right now to buy anything on Oxford Street.

Behind this breathless reproduction lies the visual delight of Cuung-hoon Chung's cinematography. It all immersed me in my memory of that little Soho restaurant that made only garlic products such as their exotic martinis or when I languished in the Square looking up at Paul McCartney's offices displaying on the wall his gold records.

Despite the prostitution that Wright weaves as a reality check, his Soho is alive with charm and temptation. Yet, it is the Last Night in Soho not just for our maturing heroines but for us lost in nostalgia.

With a final act to rival Stephen King's Carrie, the issue of female empowerment is fired up, so to speak, and the lesson leads to an appreciation of home now for love and safety. It's dangerous out there now and then. In theaters.

The Beta Test
(2021)

An effective cautionary tale about adultery and Hollywood.
Adultery meets #MeToo by way of Entourage in the sometimes comic, imminently tragic The Beta Test. Jim Cummings shows his understanding of any poor sap still thinking he belongs to the Alpha Male Club as Cummings did in different ways in Thunder Road and Wolf of Snow Hollow. In Beta, Cummings' Jordan is a talent agent running feverishly with clients but out of date clueless.

Everything about him is geared for combat: handsome head on a slender build, close-cropped hair, and machine gun delivery. What he is not prepared for, however, is a temptation too good to refuse: an invitation for anonymous sex in a high-profile hotel, with no apparent consequences except of course the shock that he would be unfaithful to this loving, virtuous wife.

After the central sin, The Beta Test moves into thriller territory as Jordan tries to find the elusive mystery lady (he was, after all, blind folded when he sinned). Of course, he is really looking to find himself especially after a partier dumps doom on his profession, which is growing more impotent in the face of a fragmented Hollywood and artists' growing independence.

Jordan might face his professional demise in the Harvey-Weinstein way if he fails to see the signals when he inappropriately guides a young female in the office or fails to weigh the consequences of infidelity. Cummings plays the perfect everyman, cocky and successful but disconnected from the emerging new woman.

Cummings has forcefully depicted a corrupt Hollywood while he has defined the defensive role men must take in face of the Internet's merciless data tracking, identity stealing, and lawlessness. Cummings' hero is this time around for him more aggressive than his other leading men but also more vulnerable.

While some may see humor in Jordan's slow dissolve into anonymity, I find his disintegration a caution to live a better life and maybe just go offline.

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