gradyharp

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Unhinged
(2020)

'I don't think you know what a bad day is! But you'll find out'
Though the public is eager for new cinema, silent during the lockdown due to coronavirus, this recent release, UNHINGED, is hardly the type of 'escape from reality' that most seek from the movies. With tension high and temperaments fragile, this story visualizes the extremes of hate and violence and rage and vengeance that are at the narrowing periphery of our view of the current world situation.

The story, by Carl Ellsworth, is directed with near intolerable propulsive energy by Derrick Borte and cast is excellent. The concept is that of the effect of rage on several characters. An anxious but thoughtless young mother, Rachel, (Caren Pistorius) is having a rough day as she drives her son Kyle (Gabriel Batemen) to school. As she hurriedly honks at a paused vehicle driven by an unstable man (Russell Crowe), she ignites the man's rage and from that point on the story is one of the man's vengeance to make her 'apologize' for her discourtesy - a diatribe that includes murdering and torturing Rachel's family ties and friends. The manner in which the gruesome chase ends is best left to each viewer to discover.

Russell Crowe invests his performance with venomous authority, both in physical girth and in manner of speaking. He epitomizes road rage and its consequences in a manner that make this well created film almost unbearable to watch. Given our current milieu this extreme form of response is all too credible - and perhaps the film serves as a warning of just how grim the uncontrolled anger can be!

The Children Act
(2017)

'I'd say you were an interfering busybody'
Ian McEwan adapted his 2014 novel THE CHILDREN ACT for the screenplay for this deeply moving film, and while the themes and characterizations are well developed, the manner in which the film concludes is less than satisfying - could this possibly be director Richard Eyre's decision rather than McEwan's usual sensitivity?

British law is front and center. The brilliant high court judge Fiona Maye, also referred to as Mrs. Justice Maye and My Lady (a radiant Emma Thompson) is assigned cases that deal with children, as in whether or not it is a crime to surgically excise ('murder') one Siamese twin so that the other can survive. Fiona is a rather cold woman in a static marriage with Jack Maye (Stanley Tucci) who desires an extramarital affair and confronts the shocked Fiona with that news. Jack leaves and Fiona is called to adjudicate a case of a 17 year old lad Adam (Fionn Whitehead) facing death from leukemia: the medical need and the hospital's decision is a blood transfusion which his religion as a Jehovah's Witness forbids, a decision Adam's parents (Ben Chaplin and Eileen Walsh) demand. Unable to weigh the case without knowing the patient's wishes, Fiona breaks court and goes to the hospital to discuss the verdict choice with Adam, and thus begins a revelatory relationship for both Adam and Fiona. 'Life is more precious than dignity.' It is this simultaneous, though separated by distance, relationship in which both Adam and Fiona find themselves, and that relationship and the morality of religious beliefs form the core of the film. The presence of Jack as he fluctuates between his sexual needs and his love for Fiona seems intrusive and non-contributory to the otherwise very sensitive story, an ending that it is doubtful McEwan.

Emma Thompson is brilliant is this challenging role as is Fionn Whitehead (a very fine new actor!) as the young lad Adam. Jason Watkins as Fiona's clerk adds the much needed wit to the story, and the rest of the cast is uniformly excellent. The musical score includes Bach Partitas, underlining the sophistication of the themes. This is a very fine film, flawed slightly by an intrusive use of a saccharine closure.

Dark Waters
(2019)

'We protect us. We do. Nobody else'
During this time when we all are questioning everything - the pandemic, social injustice, the disparity between the wealthy and the rest of us, the legal system, media information, environmental changes and so forth - along comes a brave film that substantially offers a sense of hope and positive change. Based on a true event as portrayed by Nathaniel Rich in a New York Times magazine article and adapted for the screen by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan, this power play as unwound by a humble lawyer is obviously an important statement that captured the interest and commitment of Producer/Actor Mark Ruffalo. The result is an impressive film that is a wake-up call for many issues. Todd Haynes directs with sensitivity and authority.

Very briefly, Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is a new lawyer who signs on with major law firm headed by Tom Terp (Tim Robbins) and almost immediately is called into the service of a farmer (Bill Camp) in West Virginia (because of a relationship with his grandmother) and slowly discovers the terror of Teflon (the source of the C-8 chemical that threatens health) which has been secretly dumped by the maker DuPont at their factory site in West Virginia. The discovery process is slow, but as Bilott pursues the truth he is nearly submerged by the power of a big corporation able to deny and then elude the consequences of the tragedy. In the end it is the fortitude and passion of Bilott (aided by his firm and his wife (Anne Hathaway) that ultimately brings justice for the health-affected people of West Virginia over the course of twenty years from beginning to end!

The cast is large and consistently excellent, including some of the actual people of the town of Parkersburg, WV. Mark Ruffalo delivers a staggeringly fine performance, and the additional elements at film's end underline his commitment to the story and the importance of telling that story. This is both a fine film and an important social document, one that should be seen by everyone. Grady Harp, November 20

Zero Days
(2016)

'To this we've come' - Fact stranger than sci-fi fiction
Alex Gibney wrote and directed this most disturbing documentary examining claims of American/Israeli jointly developed malware Stuxnet being deployed not only to destroy Iranian enrichment centrifuges, but also threaten attacks against Iranian civilian infrastructure, while drawing our attention to the obvious potential blowback of this possibly being deployed against the US by Iran in retaliation.

The 'cast' is a collection of the most famous leaders throughout the world, along with those in high positions in security,as well as reporters. The clips of moments from televised meetings and speeches underline the validity of the concept, but the single most impressive 'character' is a voice-disguised, face disguised-woman who speaks in a raw contemporary manner, underlining the important points the documentary is making. Her 'identity' is revealed at the end of the film.

Cybersecurity - a term that is becoming more frequently used in today's world - is something that now indicates the possibility of malware war (cyberwarfare): destroying countries with a virus that can wipe out power, communication, finances - lives! This is the takeaway from this documentary: the facts about the American/Israeli creation and use of the virus Stuxnet have been before the public for several years now. But It is the possibility of the use of created malware as a war tactic that makes us gasp.

Blackbird
(2019)

'Love is everything'
Now and again a film comes along that steps into unfamiliar and testy territory and offers an opportunity to reflect on life. BLACKBIRD is such a film. Well written by Christian Torpe and directed by Roger Michell, the film sports a fine cast and manages to tackle a theme of planned termination of life in a very sensitive manner.

The concept of the plot is rather straightforward: Lily (Susan Sarandon) has ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a progressive neurodegenerative disease) and elects to terminated her life before she becomes unable to function. Her physician husband Paul (Sam Neill) has secured a vial of pentobarbital and Lily is scheduled to drink it to end her life, She invites her family to spend a weekend with her to say goodbye: Her rather rigid daughter Jennifer (Kate Winslet) and husband Michael (Rainn Wilson) and son Jonathan (Anson Boon), her daughter Anna (Mia Wasikowska0 and her lesbian lover Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus), and her lifelong best friend Liz (Lindsay Duncan). The rather testy congregation allows secrets and conflicts to come forth - sibling rivalry and misunderstandings, relationship differences, responses to Lily's planned exit - and Lily wants a 'Christmas' as her final moments with the family. The Christmas works well until some core facts surface that threaten the wishes of Lily to have a peaceful ending. But Lily manages to assuage all problems and bids her family farewell on her terms. 'Life is all about love - love is everything.'

Susan Sarandon offers a stunning performance worth of the highest awards, and the entire cast is superb. This is a sensitive film on many, many levels - one that deserves a very wide audience, especially in these isolated times when the meaning of family is even more precious.

Hope Gap
(2019)

'You don't tell love, you feel love.'
William Nicholson both wrote and directed this artistic and sensitive little cinematic masterwork. The story examines relationships and the breakdown of marriage in a manner that is heartbreaking yet beautifully introspective.

Grace (Annette Bening) is a religious woman married to Edward (Bill Nighy), a professor at a local school who is not religious, and their marriage seems stable though with little communication on Edward's part. They are approaching a twenty-ninth wedding anniversary and the ties that bind their marriage appear fragile. Their son Jamie (Josh O'Connor) is involved in the tech industry and seems aloof. Edward shares his affair and love for another woman and tells Grace that he is leaving her. The life change plays out with each of the three - Grace is furious, hurt, and in denial, while Edward is having difficulty with the machinations of the end of their marriage, and Jamie is torn between his love for both parents and the crush of his beliefs systems that appear to unravel. Grace ultimately regains her footing and discovers a new, powerful voice and ultimately finds a way to be happy.

The cinematography by Anna Valdez-Hanks heightens the emotional impact of the film as does the musical score by Alex Heffes. Annette Bening, Bill Nighy, and Josh Charles offer polished performances and the small attending cast members are excellent. The addition of poetry greatly enhances the film's messages. But the primary contributor to the success of this film is the script and direction by Nicholson, who to date has written such films as Les Miserables, Unbroken, and Gladiator. He is a major talent. In all, this is a small but vibrant film that deserves a very large audience.

1917
(2019)

A cinematic miracle
Director (and co-writer) Sam Mendes has created a most memorable film based on a story shared by his grandfather who served in WW I and the manner in which he accomplishes his desire to re-open the history of WW I is one of the most creative and successful cinematic achievements to date.

World War I April 6, 1917 Two British soldiers Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofeld (George MacKay) are ordered by General Erinmore (Colin Firth) to cross no man's land to deliver a message to a the 2nd Devons regiment to defer their planned attack - the attack is a trap set by the enemy. On their way Blake, whose brother is with the Devons, saves his friend's life during a tripwire explosion, and is later killed by the enemy, leaving Schofeld with the responsibility of delivering the urgent message as well as informing Blake's brother of his death. Schofeld encounters many obstacles in his path through fields, deserted farms, a village, a river and a little town, until he reaches the Devons. Literally at the lost minute, he delivers his message to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the mission is accomplished. Schofeld finds Blake's older brother (Richard Madden) and informs him of the tragic news and the story ends.

Not only is the film brilliantly written (Sam Mendes with Krysty Wilson-Cairns), but the casting choices to place major actors such as Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Richard Madden and Andrew Scott is minor but pivotal roles adds to the impact of the experience. Much of the film's success is due to the brilliant cinematography by Roger Deakins and the impressive musical score by Thomas Newman - and the many associates who aided these two men in their crafts. Brilliant - on every level!

Knives Out
(2019)

'You have a regurgitative reaction to mistruths'
Rian Johnson both wrote and directed this tantalizing mystery KNIVES OUT that resurrects the memory of Dame Agatha Christie, the Queen of mystery writers. For those who disbelieve his stature in this film, see it now. He has created a detective figure in Benoit Blanc that rivals Hercule Poirot!

As much a story about a dysfunctional family's greed as a detective tale, the story (as briefly as is possible without committing spoilers) is condensed by Lionsgate as follows: 'When renowned crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead at his estate just after his 85th birthday, the inquisitive and debonair Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is mysteriously enlisted to investigate. From Harlan's dysfunctional family to his devoted staff, Blanc sifts through a web of red herrings and self-serving lies to uncover the truth behind Harlan's untimely death.' But that outline fails to focus on the intricate personality dissections of Harlan's family - and house staff: the shrewish Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her cheating husband Richard (Don Johnson) and their finagling son Ransom (Chris Evans); the vitriolic son Walt (Michael Shannon) and his wily wife Joni (Toni Collette) and their children Meg (Katherine Langford) and Jacob (Jaeden Martell) and Donna (Riki Lindhome); and Harlan's ancient mother Greatnana Wanette (K Calllan). Add to the mix the policemen (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan), the house staff- healthcare nurse Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas) and housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson) and everyone has a fine reason for wanting to see Harlan Thrombey dead!

Daniel Craig shines as Benoit Blanc, despite an at times annoying overly Southern drawl, as does Ana de Armas, and the manner in which he pieces together the mystery is spot on. Excellent concept, spirited dialogue, and exceptional acting and cinematography make this a complete winner of a movie.

Woman Walks Ahead
(2017)

'Your society values people by how much you have. Ours, how much you give away'
British screenwriter Steven Wright and British director Susanna White hold the mirror up to American history with this moving exploration of Native American abuse - a film that is most appropriate during this time of reevaluating racism.

The story is based on fact and made even more dramatic by enhancing the tale with a romantic eye. Fact: Caroline Weldon was a Swiss-American artist and activist with the National Indian Defense Association whom became a confidant and personal secretary to the Lakota Sioux Indian leader Sitting Bull during the time when Plains Indians had adopted the ghost Dance movement - 1889 - 1890. From that slice of history the film unveils a solid story.

Altering the first name of the character, 'Catherine' Weldon (Jessica Chastain) leaves New York and travels to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in the Dakotas, her goal: to paint a portrait of Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes). Her mission is a struggle due to the interference of the military - Col. Silas Groves (Sam Rockwell) and the Indian Agent James McLaughlin (Ciarán Hinds). But with the help of Indian Chaska (Chaske Spencer) she meets Sitting Bull, learns about the Lakota language, is given the name 'Woman Walks Ahead' and eventually paints Sitting Bull's portrait as they bond and learn to trust each other. Catherine aids Sitting Bull in rejecting the grossly unjust expropriation of Indian lands (and rations!) by the government only to witness the Wounded Knee massacre.

The actors are excellent and the cinematography is magnificent. For some reason the very long passages of Lakota language are not supported by subtitles: some feel this is to honor a Native tongue, but the information shared in that language is not explained to the viewer. The film is compelling and offers yet another examination of American history of which we must not be proud: it is very important for all of us to know the message and to share it with children and young adults who may have missed this potion of history

Richard Jewell
(2019)

'I'm sorry the world has gone insane'
The truth is stranger than fiction - a phrase that could be applied to this cinematic portrayal of an actual event and person. Clint Eastwood produced and directed this rather extraordinary film that, aside from relating an historic event, sheds light on the machinations of the press and the government when an explosive event occurs: the rush to judgment to satisfy the public, the police, the ultra-hungry press, the Georgia Board of Investigation, the FBI and more can obscure solid facts and investigation when a 'possible terrorist' is suspected as the perpetrator.

Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) is an obese, flawed man, unable to gain or maintain his desired place in law enforcement who lives with his mother Bobi (Kathy Bate) in Atlanta. The year - 1996 - the year of the Summer Olympic Games o the XXVI Olympiad. Richard is a security guard at Centennial Park, notes a suspect backpack, alerts the unbelieving security police and TV film crew until finally his suspicions are heeded. The bomb in the backpack explodes and Richard does his best to protect the crowd, becoming a celebrity overnight due to the attention of the television media etc. One headline hungry reporter (Olivia Wilde) pastes together rumors and weak ideas and convinces the FBI (Jon Hamm) that Richard is a terrorist - a false accusation that creates an implosion of Richard's life, his only support system beside his mother is a lawyer friend Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), an anti-establishment crusader, who with his assistant Nadya (Nina Arianda) stays with Richard until the false case is dropped.

The entire cast is excellent - many small but significant roles assigned to fine actors - but the performance by Hauser is a star turn. Not only is the film solid, but it also has some keen points to make about our legal system and the press. Everyone should see this movie.

A Perfect Murder
(1998)

'Artists are always appreciated more after they're dead'
Frederick Knott's 1952 London based stage thriller DIAL M FOR MURDER has made an impression on audiences: Alfred Hitchcock transformed it into a 1954 film, and screenwriter Patrick Smith Kelly provided a new version of that play for Andrew David to direct in 1998 - A PERFECT MURDER. The story seasons well, an intricately detailed plan for murder that slips out of the carefully designed format to become a ploy for survival.

The names and some details have changed, but the intensity survives. Millionaire industrialist Steven Taylor (Michael Douglas) is a man who has everything but what he craves most: the love and fidelity of his wife Emily (Gwyneth Paltrow). A successful player in the New York financial world, he considers her to be his most treasured acquisition. But she needs more than simply the role of dazzling accessory. Brilliant in her own right, she works at the U.N. as a multilingual translator and is involved with struggling artist David Shaw (Viggo Mortensen) who fulfills her emotional needs - yet has a dark past of his own. When her husband discovers her indiscretion, he sets out to commit the perfect murder and inherit Emily's considerable trust fund in the bargain. The only person who appears to recognize the flaws in the planned murder is Detective Mohamed Karaman (David Suchet) - a keen mind with a penchant for seeing into Emily's plight.

The story is very well acted and directed: no one is the 'primary villain' as both Steven and David vie for top rank as evil perpetrators. The original play translates well in both cinematic versions - a lasting impression of exceptional mystery thrillers.

Jojo Rabbit
(2019)

'Nothing makes sense anymore'
Taika Waititi wrote the screenplay version of Christine Leunens' best selling novel CAGING SKIES, directed, and stars in this parody of Nazi Germany (Waititi actually portrays Adolf Hitler - as an imaginary companion to the lead young boy) - a fresh bit of thoughtful parody from New Zealand!

Approaching the grim aspects of WW II Nazi Germany and the Holocaust and the youth movement that influenced young people to become committed to Nazism - as viewed through a child's eyes, makes for an at times disturbing film while at other times a bit over the top parody. As the film company's synopsis outlines, 'A World War II satire that follows a lonely German boy named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) whose world view is turned upside down when he discovers his single mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic. Aided only by his idiotic imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi), Jojo must confront his blind nationalism.' Add to this cast the presence of Sam Rockwell as the flexible Captain Klenzendorf, Jojo's best friend Yorkie as portrayed by Archie Yates among others and the film's impact is both entertaining and gripping.

At times a bit overwrought (but that is to be expected in a satire), the overall response is one of quiet nodding about he atrocities that happened and the understanding of that time we must all remember.

Ocean's Eleven
(2001)

An amazingly involving escapist film!
OCEAN'S ELEVEN may be a near twenty year old film, but its potency is durable. Director Steven Soderbergh paces this well-crafted film with firecracker action and laces it with enough humor and passion that it satisfies on every level.

The plot - an ingenious plan created by recently released ex-con Danny Ocean (George Clooney) to rob the conjoined vault of the MGM Grand, the Bellagio, and the Mirage casinos in Las Vegas, all owned by smarmy Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia). Danny partners with Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) and the two create a team of eleven assorted personalities - Bernie Mac, Elliott Gould, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Eddie Jemison. Shaobo Qin, Carl Reiner. Matt Damon, Don Cheadle - each with a special gift to carry out the heist. Oh, and Benedict is with Tess (Julia Roberts) who happens to be Danny's ex-wife - and a key reason the caper is planned!

Filled with some of the most interestingly complex concepts for staging an impossible robbery, the film keeps the viewer completely involved in the suspense through the intricate planning and rehearsal and final deed, all the while offering dialogue that is smart, funny - and on point! The climax and ending place a crown on the film - a very solid story offered with sophistication by a superb cast and director. For those who love slick flicks, this is a terrific diversion for these endless quarantined nights at home!

Motherless Brooklyn
(2019)

'I got somethin' wrong with my head. That's the first thing to know.'
For those indelibly impressed with Jonathan Lethem's 1999 highly awarded novel MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN, rest assured that the impact continues with Edward Norton's superb adaptation for the screen and excellent direction - and acting! This is a triple-header for Norton and one deserving of multiple awards.

Though the story is well known because of the book's success, the plot follows: Brooklyn's very own self-appointed Human Freakshow, Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) is an orphan whose Tourettic impulses drive him to bark, count, and rip apart our language in startling and original ways. Together with three veterans of the St. Vincent's Home for Boys - Coney (Ethan Suplee), Danny (Dallas Roberts), Tony (Bobby Carnavale) he works for small-time mobster Frank Minna's (Bruce Willis) limo service cum detective agency. Life without Frank Minna, the charismatic King of Brooklyn - who in his role as an investigator is following the beautiful Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) - would be unimaginable, so who cares if the tasks he sets them are, well, not exactly legal. But when Frank is killed, and Lionel and friends investigate his death. Lionel's world is suddenly topsy-turvy, and this outcast, who has trouble even conversing attempts to untangle the threads of the case while trying to keep the words straight in his head, uncovers the greedy machinations of Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), meets the raggedy Paul (Willem Dafoe), discovers the roots of the attempt to 're-structure' Brooklyn and Harlem by Randolph, and many more mystery secrets that would be spoilers to relate. There are superb supporting cast members such as Robert Wisdom, Michael Kenneth Williams, Cherry Jones, Josh Pais et at - a finer cast would be difficult to assemble.

This is most assuredly a timely release as we are in the support of BLM: the story is a hint at some of the situations that must be addressed. Engrossing and spellbinding, MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN (btw, that is Frank's moniker assigned to Lionel) is a worthy expansion of Jonathan Lethem's novel. Recommended.

Frankie
(2019)

'People seldom say no to Frankie' - an illuminating farewell
Director Ira Sachs (Kept the Lights On, Little Men, Forty Shades of Blue) wrote the screenplay with Mauricio Zacharias for this gentle whisper of a film that is one of the more subtle, visually impressive, and tender reflections on the subtleties of relationships and families to grace the screen.

Frankie (Isabelle Huppert) is a famous and much admired film actress who has gathered her dissipated family in Sintra, Portugal as a gesture of farewell: she is in Stage IV metastatic carcinoma. The ensemble includes her first husband Michel (Pascal Greggory) and her son by him Paul (Jérémie Renier), her present husband Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson) and his daughter Sylvia (Vinette Robinson) her husband Ian (Ariyon Bakare) and granddaughter Maya (Sennia Nanua), along with Frankie's longterm hairdresser (from films) friend Ilene (Marisa Tomei) who is with her co-worker Gary (Greg Kinnear). The interweaving of these interesting personalities creates intimate side stories as they gather in this picturesque locale, the home of a magical fountain of life. Frankie has envisioned the way she hopes old connections among this disparate group of people will correct, and while those ideas don't materialize, the mysteries of companionship and love continue to find their own destinies.

The spectacularly sensitive cinematography by Rui Poças and the special atmosphere the music of Schubert's Moments Musicaux and Debussy's Arabesques allow the film to be pensive and understated. The quiet prolonged ending of the film is worthy of awards, so well sculpted by director Sachs that it allows the messages of the film to absorb in stillness.

In an age when high tech CGI, noisy action, and crude physicality films dominate the screens, this little film is a gentle reminder of those aspects of living that deserve out appreciation.

Peppermint
(2018)

Strange applause....
An odd feeling of support for criminal acts emerges from this tense drama written by Chad St. John and directed by Pierre Morel. The story of the unmitigated revenge of a woman who is denied legal support from a corrupt system when her family is killed is at once terrifying and an act worthy of applause as she gradually destroys all the participants in the evil inflicted upon her.

The lead in to the story is solid - the violent loss of Riley North's (Jennifer Garner) family and the ill-fated trial of the perpetrators by a corrupt system - but the action truly begins when Riley steps out of five years' exile and gradually murders all the people responsible, from the presiding judge at the trial, to the various 'bad cops' and the drug cartel. Despite the constant barrage of realistic violence, the audience becomes supportive of Riley's mission - largely due in part to Jennifer Garner's fine acting and the supporting cast who make the incidents credible - John Gallagher Jr., Moises Beltran, Juan Pablo Raba, Ian Casselberry, et al.

When a film of such violent content can instill a sense of support for the lead character, the question arises - why do we tolerate injustice? This is a challenging film that places such questions before us.

Fosse/Verdon
(2019)

'Razzle Dazzle'
'Razzle Dazzle' Two of the most gifted artists of the time - choreographer/dance/director Bob Fosse and actress/dancer Gwen Verdon - are brought to life in this exceptional miniseries FOSSE/VERDON - a title that could just as easily been VERDON/FOSSE, so intertwined and interdependent were these two extraordinary people. Michelle Williams is pitch-perfect as Verdon - in looks, amazingly fine dancing and body movement and acting, and Sam Rockwell is equally impressive as Fosse, again able to dance extremely well and act a difficult part of a man at odds with his inclinations.

The series becomes a bit disconcerting at times, due to the seemingly haphazard fast forward and fast backward at crucial moments in the depicting the rocky relationship and marriage as Fosse and Verdon grow and deflate as a couple, in life and on stage. Fosse's genius is abetted by Verdon's input and influence, making the viewer at times puzzled as to the primary force in their position as pioneers in American entertainment.

The assorted entourage of actors portraying the people involved in the couple's lives offers strong support and the performing aspects of the songs and dance numbers exhumes great memories of shows such as CABARET, DAMN YANKEES, SWEET CHARITY. CAN-CAN, CHICAGO, and ALL THAT JAZZ. The psychological problems these two encounter are many, but Williams and Rockwell make them all credible. This is a fine biographical, musically enhanced 'docudrama.'

Cabaret
(1972)

'Life is a cabaret old chum'
Perhaps one of the more impressive films to come out of Hollywood, CABARET soars as both entertainment and social comment. The original Kander/Ebb musical opened on Broadway in 1966 - an adaptation of John Van Druten's 1951 play I AM A CAMERA, which was in turn based on Christopher Isherwood's novella GOODBYE TO BERLIN.

Created in 1972, the significant setting in Berlin in 1931 provides the opportunity to re-visit the Nazi rise to power, the prelude to the Jewish Holocaust, and the worldview of homosexuality - all set in parody through the Kit Kat Club with the naughty Master of Ceremonies (the superlative Joel Grey), the lead performer American flamboyant but vulnerable Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), Sally's gay British roommate Brian (Michael York), her friend the penniless Jew passing as Protestant Fritz (Fritz Wepper) and his infatuation with wealthy Jewess Natalia (Marisa Berenson), and the wealthy bisexual Maximilian von Heune ((Helmut Griem). How these individuals interrelate is mirrored by significant 'songs' on stage in the Kit Kat Club.

Bob Fosse is the Oscar winning choreographer and director, and a more sophisticated recreation of a stage musical to the cinema has yet to be made. The performances are all brilliant, not only in execution and style, but also in the manner in which they underline the social commentary of 1931 Berlin - and the world. Repeated viewings serve to enhance even more. A little miracle of a film!

Papillon
(2017)

A film that induces the sense of solitary confinement
Henri "Papiilon" Charrière's 1969 autobiography hits the screen once again, this time written by Aaron Guzikowski and directed by Michael Noer, and while the acting is fine - Charlie Hunnam as wrongfully accused victim of a murder charge Papillon and Rami Malik as the counterfeiter Louis Dega - the film is thuddingly long.

While much of the film is brutal and realistic while depicting attempted escapes and the aura of prison, the important message of the value of friendship between Papillon and Dega does ring clearly. Far too much of the film focuses on the solitary confinement Papillon 'earns' from his escape attempts - a 2 year sentence then another five year sentence - and the dank and dark silent atmospheres results in audience participation: watching these passages is akin to actually being in solitary confinement!

The previous 1973 version of the true story - with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman - moved more rapidly and was far better paced. Hunnam and Malek (and an assorted ensemble cast) definitely create the mood of the book, but the direction and editing are sluggish. The resulting concern for the audience is simply hoping that the next escape attempt works - to end the film.

Torch Song Trilogy
(1988)

'A problem is never as permanent as a solution'
A film that never grows old, TORCH SONG TRILOGY is Harvey Fierstein's gift to the world: he wrote and stared in the smash hit play on Broadway (Tony Awards) - a series of three plays (International Stud, Fugue in a Nursery, and Widows and Children First!) from 1978 - 1982, and transposed that success onto the screen in 1988. The primary role is Arnold Beckoff, a Jewish homosexual, drag queen, and torch singer living in the 1970s and 1980s in New York. Harvey also wrote the screenplay, and his glib dialogue and acerbic sense of humor as well as wise ramblings about love and endurance are intact on the screen. Paul Bogart directs.

Briefly, the plot follows Arnold (Harvey Fierstein), a famous drag queen, who tragically lost his lover Alan (Matthew Broderick) in a hate crime Alan tried to prevent. Arnold is now torn between his memories of fashion model Alan, his bisexual school teacher lover Ed (Brian Kerwin), their new adopted son David (Eddie Castrodad) and Arnold's never quite satisfied mother (Anne Bancroft, brilliant in a perfect performance!). In addition to the strong principals, the other impressive actors include Ken Page, Charles Pierce and Axel Vera as Arnold's fellow drag queens, and Karen Young as Ed's (eventual) fiancée Laurel.

Fierstein's portrayal of Arnold is one of the indelible creations of theater and film - a touchstone for many young people facing the conflicts of coming out - and a fine survey of the meaning of love and endurance. This is a film to own for frequent viewings - and sharing. Very highly recommended.

Michael Clayton
(2007)

'I'm not the enemy'
Writer/director Tony Gilroy has created one mesmerizing and terrifying film in MICHAEL CLAYTON and every aspect of this superb peak into the inside of big law firms is so well constructed that in order to appreciate the movie, repeated viewings are recommended.

Opening the film with a moment in the present, accompanied by the ramblings of a manic depressive lawyer Arthur that make little sense (until the story is over) sets the tone for the suspense and intricate shenanigans that follow. Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is a mega-sized law firm's fixer - a gambler with debts attempting to cover his brother's debts also - leaves a poker game, and in response to a telephone call drives at night, managing to avoid being blown up in his car as her silently converses with field horses. This incident is explained as the story unravels: Michael's law firm Kenner, Bach and Ledeen is negotiating a merger and the foil is a lengthy defense of a pesticide use, set in motion by Arthur (Tom Wilkinson - the speaker from the opening), whose off medication for his manic depression. The pending merger is with U-North, headed by Karen (Tilda Swinton) and the manner in which this plays out involves the derring-do of U-North 'disposing' of Arthur and planning the murder of Michael...Complicated? Yes, in a fine-tuned intellectual way.

Excellent cast, with fine support from the director and production team, this is an exceptionally fine film - worth repeated viewings not only for the entertainment value, but also for the social questions it addresses.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
(2019)

'Anything mentionable is manageable'
Mister Rogers (Fred McFeely Rogers - March 20, 1928 - February 27, 2003) is known to everyone - whether as a memory from childhood, or a memory from the childhood of our children or grandchildren. The Mister Rogers' Neighborhood preschool television series ran from 1968 - 2001 and was a rather profound influence on teaching children's emotional and physical concerns such as death, school enrollment, divorce, sibling rivalry, self esteem, dealing with anger - and puppets, friendship and songs of entertainment.

This film is based on a true story about a relationship between Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) and jaded magazine journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys). Vogel is assigned to write a profile of Fred Rogers by his editor Ellen (Christine Lahti), and despite his dread of the assignment, with support from his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), he accepts the role and in doing so he overcomes his skepticism, learning about empathy, kindness, and decency from America's most beloved neighbor. The crux of Vogel's discontent is his memory of his absentee father Jerry Vogel (Chris Cooper), sharpened by the father's appearance at his sister's wedding. The end result - Vogel becomes the loving husband and father he wants to be and the 'relationship' between Rogers and Vogel works as well with adults as it did with children. And his father dies - reunited!

There are strong points to the movie - the cast, the miniature aspects of the television show, the actual filming of a show whose star prefers simpler things like taking photos of his guests (or new neighbors) - but the story ultimately becomes a bit sappy and rehashes the old 'absent father angry son' motif to the extreme. Nice idea, good memory jogger, but less than fully satisfying.

Lucy in the Sky
(2019)

'You go up there, you see the whole universe, and everything here looks so small'
Based on real life events - astronaut Lisa Nowak's criminal activities around her relationship with fellow astronaut William Oefelein in 2006 - 2007 - and altered into the present form by writers Brian C. Brown, Elliott DiGuiseppi and director Noah Hawley, LUCY IN THE SKY is a controversial film. While the messages are mixed, one interesting idea rises: does space travel transiently or even permanently change thought perceptions, thinking and behavior?

Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman) is a strong woman whose determination and drive as an astronaut take her to space, where she's deeply moved by the transcendent experience of seeing her life from afar. Back home as Lucy's world suddenly feels too small, her connection with reality slowly unravels, as her marriage to Drew Cola (Dan Stevens) and her love affair with Mark Goodwin (John Hamm), and the death of her cocky mother (Ellen Burstyn) implode. Lucy communicates with space, gets lost in words, and isn't able to cope, leading to dire circumstances.

The highlight of this overly long film is the CGI effects in space. While Natalie Portman shines as the very strange Lucy her obtrusive artificial accent and communication diminish her credibility as a character about whom we can care. Some good ideas her, but the film simply dissolves - drifting off into space...

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw
(2019)

An escape from reality - or not...
Strange time for this Fast & Furious presentation, an action comedy with the 'enemy' being a virus meant to eradicate the world to prepare for evolution!!!! The theme may initially offend some viewers, but forget about the current pandemic for a couple of hours and ride this fast escape into wild entertainment.

There is not a whole lot of plot - just a 'bad guy' (Idris Elba) touting a virus meant to alter the populace of the globe to prepare for further manifestations of his 're-invented' mechanical and indestructible self. The 'good guys' of the title are lawman Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and outcast Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) along with Shaw's duplicitous sister Hattie (Vanessa Kirby) and jailed mother Queenie (Helen Mirren) - and Hobb's daughter Sam (Eliana Sua). Along the way we meet mad scientist Professor Andreiko (Eddie Marsan), Eteon Director (Ryan Reynolds - at his best with quips and tongue in cheek dialogue), Air Marshall Dinkley (Kevin Hart) and a mass of Hobb's Samoan family.

It's all a matter of fighting and explosions and derring-do, much of which seems in place to honor CGI artists, but it works - because it is at once silly, entertaining and - at this moment in time with COVID-19, poignant. This is a fine diversion while we are in that stay at home status.

A Million Little Pieces
(2018)

One day at a time...
James Frey's novel A MILLION LITTLE PIECES has been adapted for the screen by Aaron and Sam Taylor-Johnson and the result is a sensitive and absorbing view of Frey's struggle form addiction to sobriety.

The film opens in 1993 with a wildly chaotic and loud nude dancing sequence as James Frey (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) looses control and falls into rehabilitation, courtesy of his brother Bob Jr. (Charlie Hunnam). The story reflects the intimidation of being placed under supervision while coping with withdrawal and discovering the interstices of a rehab program. Frey gradually bonds with the outspoken and wise Leonard (Billy Bob Thornton), the fragile Lily (Odessa Young), the strange John (Giovanni Ribisi), his roommate Miles (Charles Parnell), the supervisor Lincoln (Dash Mihok), the counselor Joanne (Juliette Lewis) and others. The plethora of rancid language grows a bit tiresome, as does the constant smoking of the inmates et al, but the story is well played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson under the direction of Sam Taylor-Johnson - Aaron's wife.

A bit heavy handed at times but in all, the film works. This a fine insight into the world of rehabilitation and the Twelve Step Program.

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