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Wrath of Man (2021)
Ritchie playing it (mostly) straight
6 May 2021
Greetings again from the darkness. Cinematic Alert: Guy Ritchie has gone straight! That's right, the filmmaker we've come to bank on for dynamic action, creative editing, and clever, rapid-fire dialogue laced with dark humor and outright hilarious, offbeat moments, has delivered a straightforward, by-the-book revenge-crime thriller. Of course, despite it being about as good as anything else in the genre, we just can't help but feel a little (and maybe a lot) disappointed that Ritchie has shifted his approach and left us wondering why. After all, he's the genius behind THE GENTLEMEN (2019), SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS (2011), and SHERLOCK HOLMES (2009), as well as his brilliant first two films: LOCK, STOCK, AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS (1998) and SNATCH (2000).

The film opens with an armored vehicle heist that ends in gunfire. This heist and the crew of criminals are the key to the story, and Ritchie utilizes his non-linear, multiple perspective story-telling technique to fill in the gaps for us and provide context to everything else that unfolds. Needless to say, there's more to this heist than what we initially witness. Jumping ahead a few months, the next thing we see is Jason Statham as the mysterious "H" joining Fortico, the cash truck/armored vehicle company victimized in that early sequence. H is clearly wound tightly and not great at making friends ... at least until his heroics thwart another attempted robbery and saves the lives of co-workers Bullet (Holt McCallany) and Boy Sweat Dave (Josh Hartnett).

H's motivation is slowly revealed, as is the fact that he's not such an outstanding citizen himself. However, it's clear his mission of revenge is the most important thing in his life, and he'll stop at nothing to get the person he's after. His target is part of a criminal team of former military buddies that include Jackson (Jeffrey Donovan), Ian (Scott Eastwood), Brad (Deobia Oparei), and Sam (Raul Castillo), who want nothing more than one huge score so they can walk away and enjoy life. Other key members of Fortico's staff are played by Niahm Algar, Eddie Marsan, and Rob Delaney. H's contacts are played by Lyne Renee, Darrell D'Silva, and Andy Garcia, while singer Post Malone (billed as Austin Post) makes an appearance as a robber.

Filmmaker Ritchie is working with many of his regular collaborators. He co-wrote the screenplay with Marn Davies and Ivan Atkinson, and it's based on the 2004 French movie, LE CONVOYEUR ("Cash Truck") by Nicolas Boukhrief, Eric Besnard. Others from his usual team include cinematographer Alan Stewart, composer Christopher Benstead, and editor James Herbert. It's not unusual to find Jason Statham bring his action expertise to a Guy Ritchie crime movie, but Statham really plays it straight here as he sets out to settle a score. The almost non-existent wise-cracking leaves us feeling a bit adrift due to expectations, but the result is a fine, action-packed movie with one excessively long shootout near the end. Ritchie has certainly earned the right to make the movies he wants, but in the words of main character H, "I do bear a grudge." Opens in theaters on Friday May 7, 2021.
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Locked In (2021)
candy wrappers and bad guys
6 May 2021
Greetings again from the darkness. The first feature film from writer-director Carlos V Gutierrez is a B-movie thriller with the rare cinematic setting of a self-storage facility. Now you might think corrugated metal doors on rollers and concrete walkways don't add up to an exciting and picturesque filming location, and, well, you'd be right. However, Gutierrez uses the security cameras and maze-like corridors to generate some suspense, and he benefits from a cast that draws out every possible ounce of tension from the script.

Mena Suvari (from Best Picture winner AMERICAN BEAUTY, 1999) stars as Maggie, an employee at the storage facility, and mother to teenage daughter Tarin (Jasper Polish, THE ASTRONAUT FARMER, 2006). Mother and daughter are living in a rundown motel, and are about to be evicted due to non-payment. There is some family baggage here, as the husband/father is in prison, and Maggie is focused on finding religion to get beyond her checkered past. The last thing she needs is a night like she's about to experience.

Bruno Bichir (younger brother of Oscar nominated Demian Bichir) plays Lee, Maggie's boss who expertly plays the nice guy, while being a bit too obvious at keeping his own dark secrets. The film opens with the tail end of a diamond heist by two masked men, one who has an overactive trigger finger. Of course, the two thieves have a tie to Lee, and things go sideways quickly. Maggie and Tarin are trapped in a game of cat-and-mouse, and they don't initially understand why. Multiple bad guys enter the picture, and Maggie leaps into protective-mother mode while dealing with Ross (Manny Perez) and Mel (Jeff Fahey), the masked men from the diamond heist. Fahey is always a fun bad guy to watch, and this time is no exception. Soon, a third party enters the scene - Harris (Costas Mandylor from the "Saw" franchise), creating an even more tangled web of deceit and danger.

The film leans a bit heavy on crying and tough guy posturing, but it also makes clever use of the security cameras, the stark corridors, and even candy wrappers. The movie succeeds at being what it is: a creative low-budget thriller with an entertaining cast.
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a strong woman
6 May 2021
Greetings again from the darkness. There are likely those who know less about the history of Romania than I, but that list is pretty short. Co-writers and co-directors Alexis Sweet Cahill of Italy and Brigitte Drodtloff of Germany, along with three other listed co-writers: Gabi Antal, Ioana Manea, and Maria-Denise Teodoru, bring us the more than 100 year-old story of Queen Marie, and it's "based on True Events" (including the Queen's own writings).

Roxana Lupu, originally from Romania, plays Queen Marie, a Monarch who likely doesn't receive the historical credit she deserves. Her husband, King Ferdinand I is played by Daniel Plier, who really isn't given much to do here ... hence the film's title. A spectacular opening shot takes us over a frozen river and drops us into Bucharest in 1919. World War I has recently ended, and no one seems to care much about the state of Romania, except Romanians. Having sided with the Triple Entente (Russia, France, and Great Britain), hopes are now fading for a united Romania.

Against the preferences of Romanian Parliament, her husband, and just about everyone else, Marie headed to the Peace Talks being held in Paris ... yes, the talks that led to the Treaty of Versailles. Though most tried to encourage her to let the politicians handle the politics, Marie reminded them that she was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and thus is not silenced easily. She forced and maneuvered her way in to meetings with powerful world leaders of the time to negotiate for international recognition (and assistance) of a united Romania.

Above all else, this is the story of strong woman fighting for her country. She goes toe-to-toe with Prime Minister Ion Bratianu (Adrian Titieni), French Prime Minister Clemenceau (Ronald Chenery), and U. S. President Woodrow Wilson (Patrick Drury) in her efforts to be heard. She even battles her own son Prince Carol II (Anghel Damian), who would later become King. Ms. Lupu is excellent in the role, and she has previously played Queen Elizabeth (twice), as well as a Princess and a Grand Duchess, so clearly has the screen presence to pull off such royal and regal roles. The film only teases her attraction to Prince Stirbey (Emil Mandanac), and the personal history between her and her cousin, King George V (Nicholas Boulton).

It's a period drama with the requisite costumes, hair styles, and set design necessary to whisk us away to a century ago, and mostly we learn there was more to this popular Queen than her commitment to feeding citizens during a difficult time. The closing credits give us archival footage as well as the political developments that occurred. The time period covered is limited, but one that was crucial for a country and her Queen.

Available On Demand and on Digital May 7, 2021.
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Citizen Penn (2020)
Penn is not acting
6 May 2021
Warning: Spoilers
Greetings again from the darkness. As a two-time Oscar winner for MILK (2008) and MYSTIC RIVER (2003), Sean Penn is unquestionably one of the finest actors of his generation. He's also an accomplished writer, director, and producer, and has been in two high-profile marriages/divorces: once to pop superstar Madonna, and then to actress Robin Wright. Over the years, Penn has been labeled Hollywood's bad boy, anti-American, an opportunist, an activist, a philanthropist, and a humanitarian. Documentarian Don Hardy sets the stage by acknowledging all of that, and then focuses on Sean Penn's work with his relief organization J/P HRO (now CORE).

Director Hardy interviews Penn in what appears to be his living room. Penn rarely stops smoking and does an admirable job of taking us through how he became more than just a celebrity seeking a photo op. It was 2010 when Haiti was hit by a massive 7.0 earthquake that killed 250,000, injured 300,000, and displaced 1.5 million from their home. Penn's personal life was at a fork, and he viewed this as a way to do the right thing and help those in need. So he made some calls and along with other volunteers, headed to Haiti. Penn describes this as "building the airplane after takeoff". Stunned by the devastation, Penn used his connections to garner medical supplies and other items.

Despite facing cynicism from many, Penn mostly avoided cameras, except when he granted interviews to Anderson Cooper on CNN in hopes of raising awareness and funds for relief efforts. Penn spent several months in Haiti and his team evolved from emergency relief (medical support, food, clean water) to temporary housing, to the removal of tons of debris and rubble, and finally to new development. One of the camps that housed 60,000 people began as a tent city and is today a new city of its own.

Director Hardy weaves in some terrific video footage that corresponds to Penn's recollections, and there are especially tension-filled moments involving diphtheria, cholera, and an emergency birth. To Penn's credit, he doesn't harp on the political unrest within Haiti, and spends his time and energy on helping the citizens and his JP/HRO team as best he can. We also see clips of the organization's annual gala and witness Penn's growing frustration at the number of wealthy individuals who partake in the food, party, and music, yet don't crack open a checkbook. He shows gratitude to those who are generous, but can't hide his distaste for the others - proving that his passion goes much deeper than good PR.

Penn recruited Ann Lee from her work at the U. N. to head the newly named CORE (Community Organized Relief Effort), and the relief work from this organization has carried on through Hurricane Matthew in 2016, as well as the COVID-19 Pandemic, as they distributed tests to underserved areas. You may be the kind that volunteers for everything. Or you may be the kind that critiques others while lounging on your sofa. But even if your political views don't align with Penn's, the film will surely have you respecting his sacrifices for those in needs. His are real actions ... nothing for "show".

Premiering on Discovery+ on May 6, 2021.
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obsession defined
5 May 2021
Greetings again from the darkness. Obsession can take many forms, and a few are on display in this latest Netflix docuseries from filmmaker Joshua Zeman. For those alive in 1977, you likely remember the reign of terror in New York City due to the ".44 Killer", later known as "Son of Sam". Fear was pervasive, and the shootings that actually started in the summer of 1976 but not connected until months later, mostly seemed random, which added to the public panic. Despite the title, Zeman's docuseries is not so much about the murders, but about one man's obsession with proving the 'Son of Sam' was really more than one person, and that the relief felt by citizens after the arrest of David Berkowitz, was misplaced.

Maury Terry was an IBM employee with an exceedingly inquisitive mind. His interest in the Son of Sam case pushed him to slowly evolve into an investigative journalist ultimately convinced that the NYPD had closed the case too soon, and not approached his own level of in-depth research and detail. Terry's work is presented here after being delivered to Zeman in three boxes after Terry's death. Paul Giamatti reads Terry's own notes and book passages, and Zeman fills the four episodes with archival news clips, Terry's own videos, shots of newspaper clippings, and interviews (past and present) from family members, cops, journalists, and even surviving victims. There is a recounting of columnist Jimmy Breslin's time as a conduit to Berkowitz, a clip of Berkowitz's father's press conference after the arrest, and a fascinating tale of Maury Terry's first date with his ex-wife ... anyone looking for a good dating tip should ignore this segment.

Towards the end of the first episode, we see the iconic video of David Berkowitz smiling at the camera as police take him into custody. Since a (at the time) rare .44 caliber pistol was found with him, and Berkowitz confessed to the murders during his interrogation, the NYPD was quick to go on TV and announce to a relieved citizenry that the streets of New York were again safe, and Son of Sam was behind bars.

However, for Maury Terry, the case and the evidence just didn't add up. He was intrigued by many bits and pieces. Berkowitz stated that his actions had been guided by a 1000 year old demon through his neighbor Sam's dog. Additionally, the variances in police sketches drawn from eyewitnesses over the year simply didn't add up to being the same guy. As to Berkowitz himself, the personality of the Yonkers postal worker didn't fit cleanly into the police profile either. The more skeptical Terry became, the more doubt his research created. The final 3 episodes really focus on the case work he performed over decades ... especially his belief that the murders traced back to a satanic cult.

The show is well crafted as it connects us visually with Terry's writings and findings (including his 1987 book "The Ultimate Evil"). We see 'The Devil's Cave' and get a nice overview of the neighborhood where Terry spent much of his time investigating. We also head to Minot, North Dakota and Stanford University to gain intel on how those two sites tie-in to the case. Additionally, there's a possible connection to the Charles Manson family. The show is elevated by real life occurrences such as the letter Berkowitz wrote to Terry, and how seemingly unrelated murders might have a connection. In fact, by the end of episode four, we can't help but take note of the chain of dead bodies beyond those of the Son of Sam victims. Could it all be coincidence, or possibly the result of Maury Terry stretching too hard to make his case?

Crime shows are big TV ratings business these days, and this one blends the best of that with a notorious real life event. Having the retired Police Captain Borelli defend the work of the police somehow doesn't make us feel more satisfied with their findings, and by the end, we are just as skeptical of Terry's beliefs as we are of the department's proclamation that Berkowitz acted alone. Of course, the highlight of the show are the videos of Terry interviewing Berkowitz in person at Attica. This was influential for Netflix's brilliant series "Mindhunter" where Oliver Cooper played Berkowitz. We are tuned in to the body language of a guy who has been in prison for years. Even more than 40 years later, the events prove traumatic to revisit, and are only made creepier by Terry's theories. Were his theories on the right path or was he a lunatic conspiracy theorist, as many described? It's only now that we can question the accuracy of Berkowitz's first letter to Terry when he told him, "The public will never truly believe you." Whether accurate or not, there is no questioning Maury Terry's obsession with the Son of Sam case. Zeman's docuseries will tax your armchair detective skills and leave you wondering what's real.

***NOTE: the opening credits of each episode feature a rocking version of "Season of the Witch" performed by Joan Jett. It's certainly not the chilling version by Lana Del Rey or the psychedelic version from Donovan, but it's the perfect fit for this docuseries.

Releasing on Netflix May 5, 2021.
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The Virtuoso (2021)
Anson and Abbie
30 April 2021
Greetings again from the darkness. It seems to this casual observer that once a person makes the career decision to become a hitman (or hitwoman or hitperson), their life expectancy drops significantly, as does their willingness to trust any person they meet, or at least it should. After all, the industry of killing is all about death ... it's simply a matter of whether (this time) you are the one doing the killing, or the one being killed. This neo-noir comes courtesy of writer-director Nick Stagliano (his first feature film in 10 years) and co-writer James C Wolf.

Anson Mount (so good in the "Hell on Wheels" TV series) is the titular Virtuoso. In typical noir fashion, he's also our narrator, and serves up a detailed explanation of his approach to the profession. He's methodical and meticulous in his precision and planning, and goes about his business in a professional manner, while maintaining a low profile and adhering to his own code. He even practices his facial expressions in the mirror preparing for the rare social interaction (it's funnier than it sounds). He does jobs for The Mentor (newly crowned Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins), a former military friend of his dad. Their minimal communication usually involves a name on a scrap of paper. The first job we witness is a "rush" job and collateral damage leaves Virtuoso burdened with guilt - something that is not an asset in this line of work.

It's the second job that takes up most of the run time. The Mentor provides only "White Rivers" as a hint to the identity of the target, and instructs him to be at the only diner in a place that barely exists as a town. Walking in, he sizes up those in the diner: The Waitress (Abbie Cornish, excellent as Fanny Brawne in BRIGHT STAR, 2009), The Loner (Eddie Marsan, "Ray Donovan"), Handsome Johnnie (Richard Brake), and Johnnie's Girl (Diora Baird). A bit later, the local Deputy (David Morse) is added to the list of possible targets.

The set-up is fun, and meant to keep us striving to stay one step ahead. Chris Perfetti adds a touch of humor in his two quick scenes as the motel desk clerk, and much of the tete a tete comes courtesy of the Virtuoso and The Waitress. Of course as with most noirs, we viewers figure out what's going on long before the hero, as the distractions are many. The budding romance offers up some seedy motel lovemaking, and the Virtuoso has an unusual living arrangement in his cabin in the woods. In other words, there are some excellent elements in play here, and it's difficult to pinpoint why the film doesn't play a bit better than it does. Mostly it just lacks the suspense delivered by the best in the genre.
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two issues - seed stealing and GMO
29 April 2021
Greetings again from the darkness. When one thinks of casting a farmer in a legal drama, surely Oscar winner Christopher Walken (THE DEER HUNTER, 1978) is not even on the first two pages of the casting director's list. However, lest we forget, a great actor will make a role their own, which is exactly what Mr. Walken does here. Director Clark Johnson (known mostly for his TV acting and directing) is working from a script by co-writers Garfield Lindsay Miller and Hillary Pryor, and it's based on the true story of Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser, who fought corporate giant Monsanto all the way to the Supreme Court.

Walken as Percy admits, "I save my seeds." If this were the story of canola seeds that some farmer saves each year for his crops, I'm guessing there would be little interest. But of course this is the story of one independent farmer standing up for the rights of all farmers against agricultural giant Monsanto. This is the age old story of "the little engine that could", or the high hopes of 'the little old ant who thought he could move the rubber tree plant.' Percy and his wife Louise (Roberta Maxwell) are grounded folks - he mostly keeps to himself, and she is known locally for her pie-baking expertise. These are good folks who are working the same land that's been passed down for generations in his family.

The lives of Saskatchewan farmers Percy and Louise get rocked when, in 1998, Monsanto sues them for the presence of a patented formula in Percy's canola crop. He's no dummy, and Percy knows that he has always carefully collected his own seeds each season ... just as his father taught him. He's also a fighter, so Percy enlists local attorney Jackson Weaver (Zach Braff) to handle the case against a sea of Monsanto white man attorneys (yet another battle pitting a little guy against big money). Overly enthusiastic environmental activist Rebecca Salcau (Christina Ricci) offers help to Percy from her organization, and this leads to multiple speaking engagements for him as he literally travels around the world. Their objectives are different - Rebecca wants safe crops (not sprayed with harmful chemicals), while Percy wants independence to farm. Monsanto is there to protect their patented process that increases yields and profits.

There is a 2009 documentary that focuses on Percy Schmeiser, but I have no idea where to find it. The story is fascinating, as it involves unusual characters and the safety of food crops. Supporting work is provided by Luke Kirby and Martin Donovan, though neither are given much to work with. The joy here is in watching Christopher Walken dig in to a role that demands much from him. It's far removed from the caricatures he often plays these days. Veteran Cinematographer Luc Montpellier (CAIRO TIME, 2009) is stuck in the courtroom a bit too much, but when the camera heads outside, he does his best work. Percy died in October 2020 at the age of 89, and director Johnson includes a photo of Percy and Louise over the closing credits. He was quite a little engine that could ... and did.

In Select Theaters, on Digital and On Demand April 30.
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Mila gets serious
29 April 2021
Greetings again from the darkness. Drug addiction provides bountiful harvesting for emotional message movies, though I'll admit to some difficulty in relating to the subject matter. Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia (ALBERT NOBBS, 2011) has worked with co-writer Eli Saslow to adapt Saslow's 2016 Washington Post article, "How's Amanda: A story of truth, lies and American Addiction". It's an all-too-common tale of how addiction ruins lives and tears families apart. If not for two strong lead performances, Garcia's latest movie would be just 'another log on the fire'.

The filmmaker has re-teamed with his ALBERT NOBBS star, Glenn Close, who plays Deb, mother to Molly (Mila Kunis), a 10 year drug addict who shows up at mom's house asking for help "getting clean". Of course, mom has heard this too many times over the years. See, Molly has not only stolen from her mother and lied to her frequently, but she's also been through detox/rehab 14 times over those 10 years. Deb initially refuses to let Molly in the house, but relents the next morning and drives her straight to the detox center. The doctor tells her she qualifies for a new magic shot that will block the drug cravings and effects if she can stay clean for four days (hence the film's title). Any drugs in the system will cause complications, and likely prove fatal.

So Deb babysits Molly, who we learn has two kids by her ex-husband, Sean (Joshua Leonard). Turns out, he's not such a great guy either. I'm certainly no expert, but it appears to me that Ms. Kunis goes all-in as an addict, replete with rotted teeth, damaged skin, and an attitude that warrants a swift kick. Ms. Kunis was excellent in BLACK SWAN (2010), but it seems she spends most of her time in comedies. She proves again that she has some dramatic chops, and hopefully will continue to pursue more serious roles. Ms. Close, who recently set the record for futility by becoming the first actor with 8 Oscar nominations and no wins, dons yet another terrible wig (ala HILLBILLY ELEGY, 2020) and works very hard to create a full-fledged mother from an underwritten character. The film briefly dabbles with the mother-daughter history of abandonment, but never digs deep enough for real meaning.

Stephen Root is given little to do as Deb's second husband, and Sam Hemmings has one good scene as Molly's dad who is confronted by Deb. Clichés abound in the story, yet the underlying message of a parent who refuses to give up on their kid, even when every time the result is disappointment, is grounded in reality. It's certainly no TRAINSPOTTING (1996) as far as depressing drug addiction stories, but the two leads make it watchable.

In theaters April 30, 2021.
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Limbo (VI) (2020)
it's like a guitar
29 April 2021
Greetings again from the darkness. Immigration is an important and hot topic these days, and it should be noted that most countries have challenges with people either trying to get in or trying to get out ... and for some, it's both. Writer-director Ben Sharrock offers a unique and creative look at refugees stuck on a nameless remote Scottish island, awaiting word on their UK asylum request.

Omar (Amir El-Masry, Tom Clancy's "Jack Ryan" TV series) has escaped the war in Syria, and we learn much about him from listening in on calls to his mother from the only phone booth on the island. An acclaimed musician in Damascus, Omar lugs around his grandfather's oud ("it's like a guitar"). As proof of his homesickness, the bulky case never leaves his side, nor does he pull the instrument out to play - music is meant for joyous occasions. Omar shares a small house with three other refugees: Farhad (Vikash Bhai) from Afghanistan, Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) from Ghana, and Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) from Nigeria, with the latter two posing as brothers in hopes of improving their odds for asylum.

Omar is a sullen stone-face who absorbs the racist taunts from young locals (they ask if he makes bombs), and stands in contrast to the more outgoing and optimistic (and darn funny) Farhad. Not only does he idolize Freddie Mercury for "teaching" him English, Farhad, with his ever-present cigarette, also captures a chicken and keeps it as a pet. These refugees regularly attend a class entitled "Cultural Awareness 101", meant to acclimate those from varying backgrounds to the local customs and culture. These segments are mined beautifully for comedic effect, while also giving us insight into all those involved. There are also references to Chet Baker, Donnie Osmond, and the TV series, "Friends".

This is a terrific film, as well as an odd one. Many of the shots from cinematographer Nick Cooke are static and sparse in style, and though focused on the individuals, the camera also captures much of the isolation of the island. These visuals are stunning in both their simplicity and relevance. It's a dramedy unafraid to be absurd in a moment, while also being enlightening. At times it has the feel of Wes Anderson without the color palette. We aren't sure what is worse, the weather or the local postal service. Brutal cold envelops the newcomers, while the delivery route of a postal van (and the reactions of the refugees) is a comedic highlight. Even the local market, with its limited spice selection and directions for urination, draws laughter from us.

Despite the comedy, we never lose sight of these folks being stuck in purgatory. Maybe it's not true camaraderie, but they seem to take some comfort in numbers as they wait. Omar is carrying guilt and feelings of inadequacy as he chose to leave while his older brother Nabil (Kais Nashif) remained in Syria to fight in the war. There is a wonderful "scene" that allows Omar to make peace with their contrasting decisions, and it leads him back to playing music. After all, "a musician who doesn't play is dead". The titular term of Limbo often means stuck, and there is also a game of persistence that uses that name, and both definitions work here. We are reminded that regardless of the various cultures, those in the immigration system have their own personal stories and burdens.

Opens in theaters on April 30, 2021.
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In the Earth (2021)
Wheatley in the woods
29 April 2021
Warning: Spoilers
Greetings again from the darkness. Have you ever wondered why they warned concert attendees to stay away from the brown acid at Woodstock? I can only speculate, but I assume the poor souls who consumed the taboo drug experienced hallucinations not dissimilar to watching this latest from writer-director Ben Wheatley. Filmmaker Wheatley previously delivered such interesting and diverse fare as the intriguing horror film KILL LIST (2011), the confusing and bizarre HIGH-RISE (2015), and my personal favorite of his, the quite funny and action-packed FREE FIRE (2016).

Martin Lowery (Joel Fry, YESTERDAY, 2019) is sent to track down a doctor whose research may provide desperately needed help in fighting a virus that has wreaked havoc on the human race. Martin himself has been in isolation for four months prior to this mission. He teams up with Alma (Ellora Torchia, MIDSOMMAR, 2019), a Park Ranger who works out of a Lodge that has been closed for a year due to the pandemic. She will act as his guide on the 2 day hike through the dense forest to find the doctor.

As you would expect, the hike doesn't go smoothly, and things turn very weird and dangerous when Martin and Alma cross paths with Zach (Reece Shearsmith, HIGH-RISE, 2015). He's the ex-husband of Dr. Wendle, the one Martin and Alma are in search of. However, Zach is off the grid and off his (proverbial) rocker. He converses with the forest, which might possibly be his most normal action.

Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires, I, DANIEL BLAKE) is finally located, and though she and Martin know each other, she seems quite intent on finishing her research in the forest. Back at the Lodge, Alma had filled Martin in on a local folk tale ... the Spirit of the Woods, named Parnag. Most just call it, "the thing in the woods." Are we to believe nature is evil, or is nature just fighting back against humans?

Written by Wheatley last year, the film shows the effects of a pandemic on some people and how trying to solve things through science may fall short. Paranoia, distrust, dread, and isolation from others are all at play here - and quite in line with our current state. A supernatural element hovers, but the psychedelic images keep us disoriented, and seem to exist for the sole purpose of visual effects. The strobes are so strong they could trigger responses from sensitive viewers, and if they don't, the gore likely will. Cinematographer Nick Gillespie and composer Clint Mansell are standouts here, and though Wheatley is to be commended for his quick work, the film didn't really click for me. Perhaps the two best comparisons are THE HAPPENING (2008) and the far superior ANNIHILATION (2018).

In theaters April 30, 2021.
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storming the caste
26 April 2021
Greetings again from the darkness. Writer-director Ramin Bahrani (the excellent 99 HOMES, 2014) adapted Aravind Adiga's 2008 novel, and for his efforts, he was awarded an Oscar nomination for adapted screenplay. The honor is justified thanks to the complexity of the story, though we are never sure if this is satire of, or insight and enlightenment into India's caste system. Either way, it hooks us early and never lets go.

Adarsh Gourav stars as Balram, and the story is structured via his narration of his own life story as outlined in a letter he drafts to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao prior to his official visit to India in 2010. The timeline stretches from Balram's youth to the time of the letter, when he describes himself as a Bangalore entrepreneur who rose from poverty to being a self-made man. We are there when Balram overhears the local powerbroker known as The Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar) mention that the family needs a second driver. The ambitious Balram borrows money from Granny (Kamlesh Gill) for driving lessons, and soon he's at the gate talking his way into the job.

Balram is hired as the driver for The Stork's son, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) who has returned from his time in the U. S. with an American woman, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) by his side. It's bizarre to see Balram's eager-to-please ways contrast with the western approach Ashok and Pinky apply. Whereas servants are usually treated poorly, mixed messages are received by Balram, who ends up sleeping in a parking garage storage room while his masters luxuriate in a Delhi penthouse.

A tragic event occurs leaving Balram betrayed by the family to which he's displayed nothing but loyalty. The film even takes a wicked shot at the Oscar winning SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008), although the films do share some common themes. This film follows the plight of a servant, and takes a particularly close look at the 'haves' and the 'have-nots'. Just how far can one be pushed before standing up or fighting back. Since the film starts where the story ends, we are prepared for the path, though the actual steps are stunning.

Filmmaker Bahrani floats dark comedic undertones, though it's never really funny - in fact, most of the story is quite serious. Mr. Gourav excels in the lead role as he explains India's social structure through big belly vs small belly. His journey takes him through multiple personality shifts - the poor villager busting rocks, the eager to impress new servant, the insightful young man who learns a harsh lesson, and finally, the "self-made" man, confident in his abilities and able to overlook his own actions that got him there.
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keeps us hovering just above depression
24 April 2021
Greetings again from the darkness. A quarter-century once elapsed between feature films for Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson. He only directed a handful of short films between "GILLIAP" (1975) and SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR (2000). Mr. Andersson makes Terrence Malick look prolific. He's certainly not a traditional filmmaker and this latest is not a typical movie. In fact, its highest and best use may be in a graduate Psychology or Philosophy class, so that the mental capacity of students can be stretched and tested to determine whether Andersson is celebrating life or bemoaning our existence.

The narrator begins most segments with something along the lines of: "I saw a man ...", "I saw a woman ...", "I saw parents ...", and "I saw a couple floating ...". These lead us into static one shot vignettes with little or no dialogue. For example, in the first segment, a woman on a park bench concludes with, "It's September already." There is a priest who makes a recurring appearance as one who has lost his faith. In another, parents have lost a son. The emphasis is on the artistic impression and one's own interpretation.

Over the opening, and again later in the film, we see a couple floating over the ruins of Cologne. It's Andersson's take on Chagall's 1918 painting, "Over the Town". Another segment is a recreation of Hitler's bunker in Kukryniksy's 1946 painting, "The End". These are simple, stark, low-key snapshots in time. The color palette seems to be off-gray, and the sun never shines in this world - there's no tanned skin in the bunch. Andersson offers just enough moments of hope/happiness to prevent this from being 80 minutes of full-on depression. We always think he's trying to tell us something, but can't always decipher what the intended message is. Like the best art, it's up to your interpretation, and surely dependent on individual perspective.

Release delayed due to COVID-19.
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Another Round (2020)
if a little is good, is more better?
24 April 2021
Greetings again from the darkness. Oscar nominated for Best Foreign Language Film (Denmark), its director, Thomas Vinterberg was also nominated for Best Director. Mr. Vinterberg also directed the excellent 2012 film, THE HUNTING, and this time out, he collaborates yet again with his co-writer and lead actor from that film: Tobias Lindholm and Mads Mikkelsen, respectively.

Mikkelsen (already one of the few must-watch actors) stars as Martin, a married man, father of two, and history teacher. His long-time friends include Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), a PE coach; Nikolaj (Magnus Millang) a Psychology instructor; and Peter (Lars Ranthe), the music teacher. The buddies are chatting over dinner as they celebrate Nikolaj's 40th birthday, and they come to realize they are each floating through life - in a mid-life crisis of sorts, neither happy nor sad. It's at this point where Norwegian Psychiatrist Finn Skarderud's hypothesis is discussed. They agree to test Skarderud's theory by maintaining a .05% Blood Alcohol Content (BAC), even while teaching.

Almost immediately, the men each feel mentally sharper, more engaged, and awakened to their lives. Martin re-connects with his wife, Anika (Maria Bonnevie), and becomes a history teacher that inspires students ... quite a change from the complaints he had been receiving. The accomplishments of Hemingway and Churchill are discussed, as if alcoholics need role models. And then, to push a good thing even farther, the men decide if .05% works, why not take it to .10%? Well that's what the men do, and of course, the results aren't so great - ranging from upsetting to tragic.

Is it possible to re-discover a life that's being wasted in self-pity or a state of numbness? Can alcohol jolt one back to life after the loss of youth and the reality of adult responsibility? Mid-life crisis has been addressed in many films, and alcohol is often part of the story ... think SIDEWAYS (2004). We learn here that the Danish culture involves heavy drinking, and in Denmark, there is an extraordinarily high rate of teenage drinking.

The film is well acted, and Mikkelsen is terrific. Vinterberg dedicated the film to his daughter Ida, who was scheduled to appear in the film before dying in a car crash. He strategically includes Kierkegaard's quote about life being lived forwards, but only understood backwards, and that truly is the crux of what the men are experiencing. The final scene is extraordinary and unexpected, as Mikkelsen wows with an interpretative and energetic dance to "What a Life" by Scarlet Pleasure. What a life, indeed. And perhaps there is hope after all.

Available on HULU.
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Can you tell me how ...
22 April 2021
Greetings again from the darkness. Kermit the Frog. Bert and Ernie. Big Bird. Cookie Monster. Abby Cadabby. Grover. Oscar the Grouch. Guy Smiley. Mr. Snuffleupagus. Prairie Dawn. The Two-Headed Monster. Elmo. Count Von Count (The Count is my personal favorite). What a lineup of characters ... each with their own personality and look, and every one designed to appeal to kids and help educate. It's been more than 50 years since "Sesame Street" first hit the TV airwaves, and filmmaker Marilyn Agrelo (MAD HOT BALLROOM, 2005) uses Michael Davis' book, "Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street" as a guide to this personal peek behind the curtain, and a look at the folks who made the show such a success.

The four main drivers responsible for the show were Joan Ganz Cooney, Lloyd Morrisett, Jon Stone, and Jim Henson. Ms. Cooney and Mr. Morrisett co-founded the Children's Television Workshop, which led to the research and funding necessary to kick off "Sesame Street", the show. Ms. Cooney brought on Mr. Stone to develop and produce the programming, and of course, Mr. Henson, the creator of the Muppets and "Fraggle Rock" was the master puppeteer who was with the project from its inception in 1969.

The background information is quite interesting. Morrisett recalls hearing his 3 year old daughter singing beer jingles she had memorized from watching TV. He instinctively knew TV was making an impact and could be better utilized. Cooney talks about her initial business plan and how, at the time, a woman wasn't going to be accepted as the face of an innovative program - risky for investors and networks. We also see many clips of Stone and Henson at work on set, and numerous people offer perspective on the creativity and effort that went into those early years. In fact, the film opens with a look at the 1981 New York City set as an episode is being filmed. Some of the cast members interviewed include Roscoe Ormon (Gordon), Sonia Manzano (Maria), and Bob McGrath (Bob).

With an early emphasis on providing educational programming for minority and inner city kids, we hear of Mississippi's refusal to air the program due to minority cast members. The focus on 3 to 5 year olds was revolutionary at the time, and the societal benefits of injecting fun into learning was immense, though brilliantly, the creators made it interesting for adults as well. Filmmaker Agrelo has much to cover here, and does a nice job segmenting so that each piece of the Sesame Street puzzle is clear. The focus is on the early years (pre-Elmo). The dynamics of Frank Oz and Jim Henson as master puppeteers is a joy to behold, while Joe Raposo and Christopher Cerf offer perspective on the frantic pace to generate the music necessary for each episode ... including the "lawsuit" involved with "Letter B".

As with any educational efforts, but especially those with an entertainment push, addressing the difficult and uncomfortable issues is critical. We hear about the iconic segment where the characters deal with Mr. Hooper's death in the 1980's. Even today, it's held up as the standard for helping kids deal with death. Jim Henson's unexpected death at age 53 in 1990 is also discussed, and clips from that funeral will likely bring a tear to your eye. Big Bird singing Kermit's signature song, "Bein' Green" got to me. There is a bit on Carroll Spinney (Big Bird and Oscar), who passed away just over a year ago, and all of the key characters get their moment.

This is an HBO Documentary and Chicken Soup for the Soul production, and it's an enlightening 'behind-the-scenes' look at the visionaries responsible for this groundbreaking, Emmy and Peabody award-winning show that probably saved public television. So my advice is to "Put down the Ducky" and give this documentary a watch. It's sure to take you to where "the air is sweet." The film will be released in theaters on April 23, 2021 and On Demand on May 7, 2021.
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magnificent creatures
22 April 2021
Greetings again from the darkness. For many of us, our exposure to whales is limited to learning in school they are the largest mammals on Earth, and browsing travel guides displaying fantastic photographs of breeching whales alongside various tour excursions. National Geographic is on a mission to take us deeper into the world of these marvelous marine creatures. This 4-part docuseries is Executive Produced by Oscar-winning director James Cameron and award-winning photographer Brian Skerry, and was filmed over 3 years in multiple locations around the globe.

Episode One is titled "Orca Dynasty", and it explores communication and social structure that occurs within the family pod and community ... a recurring theme in each of the episodes, and across the five types of whales covered. Orcas, sometimes referred to as "killer whales", are the gorgeous black and white whales often featured at water parks ... although thankfully not as frequently as in the past. This segment takes us to New Zealand where we see the Orcas work together in hunting stingray, and utilize sophisticated sonar as their guide. We also follow them to the frigid water of the Arctic Ocean, as well as their confrontations with elephant seals in The Falklands.

Episode Two, "Humpback Song", features a baby learning to "speak", and again focuses on the culture and communication of the humpbacks. We witness these whales using their large brains for "bubblenet" fishing in Alaska - a highly coordinated effort that has been occurring for 40-plus years. The humpbacks breech and then slap their fin to communicate with each other. Their 'song of the sea' is featured in the Cook Islands, and we see the bonding that occurs between mother and calf. It's awe-inspiring to note that 100,000 whales from around the world simultaneously head to Antarctica for a krill buffet that results in each whale gaining up to 12 pounds an hour!

In Episode Three, "Beluga Kingdom", we follow along as these creamy white whales and their exceptionally social manner, adopt a stray narwhal whale into their pod so that it doesn't die alone. The narwhals are the most unusual looking whale in existence, even in comparison to the Belugas. With skin 100 times thicker than humans, Belugas are also known for group births, and generations of Belugas have spent one-third of their summers in Hudson Bay (Canada).

The fourth and final episode, "Ocean Giants" focuses on the massive sperm whales, best known as "Moby Dick". We learn their brains are six times larger than humans, and they use a Morse Code style clicking sound to communicate with each other. In Dominica (eastern Caribbean) we find 20 sperm whale families who deep dive to feed on 100 squid per day. This segment also includes the often tragic ramifications of human debris in the ocean, as sea turtles are entangled in discarded fishing nets.

Photography throughout the series is stunning and breath-taking. It takes us to places we never knew existed or might have previously only dreamt of. The only downside is the narration from Sigourney Weaver, whose lack of energy in reading, periodically gives this the sound of an old-school educational film. James Cameron provides an epilogue for each episode, but without a doubt, it's the fabulous creatures themselves that hold our attention. We find the Orcas, Humpbacks, Belugas, Narwhals, and Sperm Whales to be awe-inspiring and mesmerizing, and it's fascinating to learn how intricate and complex their social structures and cultures are. These intelligent giants of the sea draw us right into their world; and we are better off for it.

Disney+ original series Secrets of the Whales, from National Geographic, premieres Earth Day, April 22, 2021. The three-year project will also be featured in the new National Geographic book Secrets of the Whales, on sale April 6, and the May issue of National Geographic magazine, The Ocean Issue, available online on April 15.
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tears of a clown
22 April 2021
Greetings again from the darkness. I'm not sure how many people under age 50 even know who Tiny Tim was. Perhaps they recall a mention of his most popular song "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" in one of the Harry Potter books, or remember hearing the song in the 2010 horror film INSIDIOUS; but if they happen to recognize his name, I expect very few in that age group understand the cultural phenomenon that was Tiny Tim ... albeit for a short period of time.

Filmmaker Johan von Sydow opens with a clip of Tiny Tim singing "I've Got You Babe", a hit song for Sonny and Cher. It's likely a jarring opening for those unfamiliar with him, but it captures his unique style and stage presence. Weird Al Yankovic is the narrator that guides us through the story, and there are interviews with Tiny Tim's widow Susan, his daughter Tulip (yep), and personality Wavy Gravy (best known for the WOODSTOCK movie), as well as friends, musicians, directors, and others who provide insight into the man and his life and career.

"Tiptoe through the Tulips" was actually a hit song from 1929, and Tiny Tim reinvented it as a novelty song - and we see the clip of him performing it in 1968 for a national audience on "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In". Yankovic reads passages from Tiny Tim's diary, and we gain perspective on what it's like to go through life as a "freak". From the diary we learn, "God told me to sing the sissy way", and that was evidently his motivation for using the falsetto ... allowing him to be billed as "The Human Canary" early on. His first album, "God Bless Tiny Tim", was released in 1968, but it was the following year that caused the biggest splash. In December 1969, Tiny Tim married 17 year old Miss Vicki Budinger live on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson", and 45 million viewers tuned in.

Born in New York as Herbert Butros Khaury, he was focused at an early age on being famous - on making an impact. Carrying a shopping bag on stage and pulling out a ukulele, Tiny Tim crafted a stage persona that took over his life. Of course the thing about fame is that it's often fleeting. Director von Sydow pulls much of the story from the biography, "Eternal Troubadour: The Improbable Life of Tiny Tim", by Justin Martell and Alanna Wray Mcdonald. Sure, there's the photo by Diane Arbus, but there's also the mob control and gigs with the traveling circus. In 1995, he married lifelong fan Susan Gardner. This was the year before his death, and we see the clips of his time on stage as he has a heart attack, and just prior to his final collapse a couple of months later. How can so much sadness come from a man who entertained so many? We are reminded of the song, "Tears of a Clown", yet when one's goal is fame, the piper must be paid.

Being released in theaters on April 23, 2021.
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We Broke Up (2021)
paul bunyan games
22 April 2021
Greetings again from the darkness. They've been together for 10 years, and when Doug proposes - seemingly spontaneously - to Lori, her reaction is 'slightly' askew from what he expected. The real question here is, how do two people have a 10 year romantic relationship and never once discuss marriage, kids, a house, or literally anything to do with their future? That's the premise for the dramedy from writer director Jeff Rosenberg and co-writer Laura Jacqmin.

Aya Cash ("Fosse/Verdon" and a Jodie Whitaker lookalike) stars as Lori, longtime girlfriend of Doug, played by William Jackson Harper (MIDSOMMAR, 2019). If the proposal-gone-wrong and subsequent fallout weren't uncomfortable enough, the timing couldn't be much worse. Lori and Doug are scheduled to leave for her sister's wedding, and both have roles in the wedding party ... he's "King of the Ushers". Since staying away is not an option, the dilemma they face is whether to announce the break-up or pretend everything is fine until the vows are exchanged. They decide not to spoil the wedding and head off to Camp Arrowhead, the former summer camp site that the wedding couple selected for the ceremony.

Sarah Bolger (IN AMERICA, 2002) plays Bea, Lori's betrothed sister. She's been dating Jayson (Tony Cavalero, "School of Rock" TV series) for a whole month, and the two energetic free-spirits are total personality opposites from Lori and Doug. As mother of the two girls, Peri Gilpin ("Frasier") is a tad less than supportive of her daughter's spontaneous life decisions, while initially clueless to the difficulties faced by her stable and dependable daughter.

The film is well acted by the leads, but most of it feels like a missed opportunity to explore the psychological differences of the sisters or the effects of a long-term "comfortable" relationship with no eye towards the future. Both of the topics are begging for more in-depth coverage, and instead we are left with mostly predictable behavior. One couple that is too fast to the altar, while the other is too slow, presents a goldmine of opportunity. On the bright side, there are some small moments and subtle jokes and gags that are beautifully executed and work much better than the overall comedy efforts. Filmed at Calamigos Ranch in Malibu, the film touches on anger and hurt and excitement, and all emotions attached to love and relationships.

In theaters and On Demand April 23, 2021.
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Deadly Cuts (2021)
clever, funny, and sharp
15 April 2021
Greetings again from the darkness. If we have to depend on Dublin filmmaking for the year's first stellar comedy, then so be it. This is the first feature film from writer-director Rachel Carey, but it certainly won't be the last. Somehow she's created a black and blue comedy that plays like a mash-up of ZOOLANDER (2001) and BLOW THE MAN DOWN (2018), two films I feel sure had not previously been mentioned in the same sentence.

Piglinstown is a small, working class community in Dublin ... the metaphorical 'other side of the tracks'. Michelle (Angeline Ball, THE COMMITMENTS, 1991) runs the salon, and is just one of the local business being threatened by gang activity and gentrification driven by greedy politicians. Michelle's staff includes Stacey (Erika Roe, HERSELF, 2020), a stylist who believes winning an upcoming competition can not only save the salon, but also her dreams of finally being accepted by the mother that deserted her many years ago; Gemma (Lauren Larkin), the in-house amateur psychologist and therapist; and Chantelle (Shauna Higgins, "Red Rock"), a socially awkward wizard with hair color. It's a motley crew of women who are stronger than they think, and display a camaraderie that defines small business and small towns.

The ladies embrace the upcoming "Ahh Hair" competition as their road to salvation, where a win would boost the salon's reputation and make tearing the shop down for luxury apartments an unthinkable act. The problem is that the annual competition is consistently won by the posh shop where Michelle once worked before a catastrophic on stage occurrence many years ago. The high end shop is now run by her hilariously intimidating rival Pippa (Victoria Smurfit, "Marcella"). This becomes a bit of a parody of class distinction between Dublin's north and south side.

But there is much more here than the hair styling competition. Some of the grit of the working class rears its head one evening when the gang leader threatens the ladies of the salon. One thing leads to another and soon the shop has earned its name, "Deadly Cuts." Although crime and violence play a role here, the gore is minimal and mostly occurs off screen, and even packs its own level of humor. Ms. Carey loads up her script with a slew of one-liners, each expertly delivered by a cast that embraces the cinematic lampoon. "The hair tongs are heating up" is merely one example of what is broadcast by FAD TV during the competition. For a rollicking good time, check this one out ... though you may need the closed captions unless your ears are in full Irish mode.

Featured at the 2021 Seattle International Film Festival.
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Gunda (2020)
pork, chicken, and beef come alive
15 April 2021
Greetings again from the darkness. We open on a pig in prone position with her head sticking through an opening in the barn. It takes a minute to realize the sow isn't sleeping, but rather giving birth. Slowly the newborn piglets begin tumbling out into the world. Cutting to a reverse camera angle, we see the 12-13 babies desperately trying to latch onto mom for their first meal. The runt of the litter struggles more than the others. Award-winning filmmaker Viktor Kosakovskiy runs this first segment just over 19 minutes. There is no dialogue. No human on screen. The soundtrack is all natural from nature: the snorts from mama sow, the squeals from piglets, and unseen birds chirping.

Our second segment finds roosters in a crate. Clearly new to the surroundings, and likely never-before "free" to roam the land, these chickens cautiously explore as the camera focuses on their tentative initial steps from the cage and startled reactions to birds. A one-legged rooster captures our attention as it makes its way through the grass and over fallen logs. It's likely the longest amount of time a movie camera has been dedicated to following roosters around.

We then head back to find the piglets have grown substantially. We don't know how much time has passed, but we watch along with their mother as the youngsters play in the field, fight with each other, and bully their youngest sibling. Gunda, the mother sow, watches over them just as any mother would watch over her kids. Our third group is introduced as the barn door opens and the cows are released. They romp into the fields like school kids at recess. Some of the cows stare directly into the camera as if to inform us they are ready for their close-up. It's fascinating to see how they use teamwork for an ingenious head-to-tail solution to the annoying flies that relentlessly pester them.

The final segment returns us to the pigs as they display the same feeding frenzy as one might witness at the buffet on a Carnival cruise. An ending that will surely evoke emotions in viewers, though maybe not at the extreme of Gunda herself. Filmmaker Kosakovskiy leaves us wondering how a black and white film with no dialogue or human characters makes such an impression as it focuses on farm animals. Pork, chicken, and beef. Clearly it's no coincidence that he chose three staples of the American diet. There is no lecture on animal rights, and none of the brutality of other "raised for food" documentaries is shown. But the message is there. It was filmed on farms in Norway, Spain, and the U. K., but the locales matter little. Director Kosakovskiy previously brought us the excellent AQUARELA (2018), a documentary showcasing the nature of water and ice, and here he assisted Egil Haskjold Larsen with cinematography, and Ainara Vera with editing. It's an unusual film, and one meant to inspire reflection and thought ... and hopefully change.

In theaters beginning April 16, 2021.
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Monday (2020)
time to grow up
15 April 2021
Greetings again from the darkness. I will admit upfront that I'm no fan of watching late thirty-somethings living their lives like a never-ending fraternity party. So when the film opens on a disco ball, and we see a woman breaking up with her boyfriend on the phone while the thumping dance blasts, and then she immediately hooks up with the equally-aged DJ ... well, I was concerned that writer-director Argyris Papadimitropoulos and co-writer Rob Hayes decided to make this film as a kick to the shins of any job-holding, respectable grown-up movie watcher. Fortunately, it's not as bad as all that.

The two instant-lovers wake up naked on the beach the next morning and introduce themselves while handcuffed in the back of a police car. Denise Gough (JULIET, NAKED) is Chloe, an immigration lawyer who has been in an abusive relationship, and seemed to move on quickly (minutes later), without much thought. Sebastian Stan (Bucky from "The Avengers" franchise) is Mickey, a party boy DJ who is also an advertising jingle writer. Chloe and Mickey are both American ex-pats living in Athens, Greece. He's been knocking around for almost 7 years, and after 18 months, she's now scheduled to head back to the U. S. And yes, we do get the obligatory frantic airport moment - this one is less touching and more contrived.

The next few weekends basically involve these two going at it like rabbits at any time and in any place. Chloe and Mickey are a beautiful couple in a gorgeous setting, and it's quite obvious they are incompatible as a couple doing anything other than coupling. If thirty-somethings bonding over partying seems like a recipe for disaster, the party they throw will prove your point. It's an understatement to say her circle of sophisticated friends don't mingle well with his group of belligerent scofflaws. Supporting work is provided by Dominique Tipper as Bastian, a former bandmate with Mickey, and Yorgos Pirpassopoulos as Argyris, Mickey's close friend who wields power locally due to family money.

This is really the Sebastian Stan and Denise Gough show. He's a good fit as the charming, self-defeating guy who can't grow up, while she's an enigma - a woman seemingly too smart to fall for this guy and screw up her life after a weekend fling. Ms. Gough is strong in her ability to create a complex character from a fragmented script that forces her to overcome weak dialogue and absurd situations. As an example, Chloe and Mickey have 3 police encounters ... which is 3 more than the average person experiences in a lifetime.

Athens and the island of Antiparos make for a stunning setting for a movie, but the script falls short of the work necessary for this couple to transition from a wild weekend fling to an actual relationship with responsibilities, jobs, and a kid. We see how Chloe feels trapped, but the third act spins out of control as lot of Fridays turn into the titular Monday of reckoning.

In theaters and On Demand April 16, 2021.
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Better Days (2019)
courage in youngsters
12 April 2021
Greetings again from the darkness. Chinese gaokao is the College Entrance Exams that determine the future of high school students and their families. The pressure is extreme for the kids, and when the film opens, the exams are only 60 days away. One of the students leaps to her death from an upper breezeway to the concrete courtyard below. Her fellow classmates converge on the scene with cell phones recording the tragedy. One girl, Chen Nian, quietly covers up the body. While most assume the pressure of the impending test was too severe for the girl, Nian knows better. The relentless bullies that motivated the suicide have now turned their attention to Nian.

Director Derek Tsang (aka Kwok Cheung Tsang) delivers a beautiful film with compelling characters and a heart-wrenching story. Jiuyue Xi's novel, In His Youth, In Her Beauty" has been adapted for the screen by co-writers Wing-Sum Lam, Yuan Li, Yimeng Xu, and Nan Chen. Filmed in 2018, the Chinese government delayed its release due to concerns over how its society would be perceived, given extreme bullying, class differences, and the extensive use security cameras throughout. Instead, we note the similarities in people, and how young people carry burdens that often go unacknowledged.

Zhou Dongyu gives a terrific performance as Chen Nian. She's an excellent, devoted student who has no one to depend on thanks to a mostly absentee mother who spends her time scamming for money and dodging creditors. Nian has no real friends, and her closest companion was the one whose body lay crumpled in the courtyard. Nian stumbles into a situation that could not be described as a 'meet-cute', and soon she has requested street punk Xiao Bei (played by Jackson Yee) to act as her protector against the bullies, so that she may focus on the exams. Additionally, she's been questioned by the police in regards to the suicide, and Detective Zhang (Yin Fang) takes a particular interest given his knowledge of schoolyard bullies.

The bond between equally adrift and confused teenagers Nian and Bei grows, despite his being a dropout. Are they star-crossed lovers? Is it a budding romance? What makes it interesting is that it doesn't even matter. What does matter is the courage these two youngsters show in the face of adversity. Does it go too far? The third act will leave you wondering just what is the answer to their dilemma. How harshly can you judge those in self-preservation mode when the school motto is "Work Hard. No Regrets"? There is a retro feel to Tsang's filmmaking style, and we are left with the reminder that "used to be" infers a sense of loss ... and we all experience different types of loss. Excellent filmmaking that rightly earned an Oscar nomination.
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Held (2020)
the voice
9 April 2021
Warning: Spoilers
Greetings again from the darkness. Co-directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing previously collaborated on the horror film, THE GALLOWS (2015), and this time they are working from a script by Jill Awbrey, who also stars. It's Ms. Awbrey's first feature film as a writer or actor. Most people agree that marriage can be challenging, but this one introduces thrills and chills into a relationship that's already navigating in choppy waters.

Writer Awbrey (a Julie Harris lookalike) plays Emma Barrett, who we see in an early flashback as a young woman trapped in a car with two men. We don't see it, but we know what's about to happen against her will. Today's Emma is then seen again in the backseat ... as her Uber driver (Rez Kempton) asks inappropriate questions, and comes across more than a bit creepy as he notes the remoteness of her drop-off and pressures her for a bonus tip. These two scenes remind us of how women must always have their defense mechanism on high alert around men.

Emma and her husband Henry (Bart Johnson, HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL) have set up a rendezvous to see if they can rekindle what's waning between them after 9 years of marriage. We get an aerial view of the ultra-modern and ultra-smart house stuck in a cornfield miles from civilization. The terror and mystery begin the next morning when Emma and Henry wake up in different clothes and with missing phones. A "voice" tells them that the secrets of their marriage are no longer secret, and they must "obey". If not, the implanted sensor behind their ear will act as a shock collar, causing extreme discomfort and pain. Emma and Henry both experience this the hard way.

The film appears to be a VRBO home invasion movie wrapped in the contemporary issue of surveillance and security. However, that's only part of the story. The "voice" is pushing the couple into a 1950's version of THE STEPFORD WIVES, replete with veggies in the fridge, modest wardrobes in the closet, and an apron for Emma. She is being coerced into acting like a submissive wife, as if anyone today still fantasizes about a 1950's marriage. It's disturbing to watch as Emma and Henry try to find a way to escape, while not triggering another jolt of pain, and complying with commands from the voice (who seems to be Jigsaw from the SAW series transformed into a marriage counselor).

The objective here seems to be as satire and commentary on male privilege in a male-dominated society ... one where women always carry a bit of fear, despite being so much stronger and forceful than what we saw in 1950's TV series. That traditional marital structure no longer exists, but when combined with a luxurious smart house, does make for an interesting premise in the horror-thriller genre. When save-the-marriage transitions to survival mode on top of fear of being watched and manipulated, the terror is palpable. The only frustration is that so much more could have been done, over and above the twist. Despite the lags, the film does provide 'talking points'.

In theaters and On Demand April 9, 2021.
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bringing warmth where none exists
5 April 2021
Greetings again from the darkness. Richard is a prison guard whose ambitions and progressive ideas have his sights set on a promotion off the daily grind of the cold corridors ... despite an amiable personality that has him as a likable guy amongst the prison workers and the prisoners. In fact, it's that friendliness that drives the warden (Eileen Galindo) to move Richard to the mail room. She presents this as a promotion by bestowing upon him the title of Director of Prisoner Communication.

Oscar Isaac plays Richard in this Oscar nominated short film written and directed by his real life wife, Elvira Lind (BOBBI JENE, 2017). Isaac gives a strong performance and makes Richard a relatable guy - one that seems cheery enough with co-workers, while then going home to watch TV with his dog after warming up leftovers. With a new job that entails scanning incoming and outgoing mail for threats and contraband, Richard is touched by the personal love letters received by Cris (Brian Petsos), one of the death row inmates. Richard is miffed as to why Cris never responds to Rosita (the always interesting Alia Shawkat) and takes it upon himself to find out more ... and yes, this is totally outside the scope of his job.

It may seem odd for a prison to generate warm emotions, but that's part of the brilliance of Ms. Lind's excellent script. In a world where we are currently struggling to find signs of compassion and common courtesy, we watch as this prison guard tries to make things a little better ... and on top of that, interjecting subtle moments of humor add even more of a human touch, while the attention to detail takes us even deeper. This is an excellent story, and in 33 minutes, this world - quite foreign to most of us - becomes something we understand. And it's achieved through the eyes of a lonely guy just trying to do the right thing.
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grief results in our disappointment
5 April 2021
Greetings again from the darkness. Psychological Thrillers can be quite fun to watch when well-written and well-acted. It's a delicate balance though, since if even one of those elements is lacking, the enjoyment level plummets and the eye-rolling begins. Unfortunately this film from director Vaughn Stein (TERMINAL, 2018) and screenwriter David Murray (his first feature film) is a masterclass in eye-rolling, despite a well-respected and familiar cast.

Oscar winner Casey Affleck (MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, 2016) and Michelle Monaghan star as married couple Dr. Philip and Grace Clark. He works at a Psychiatry Institute and she's a local Real Estate Agent. An early scene shows adoring mother Grace driving their young son to hockey practice. Tragedy strikes, and since that night, Philip and Grace barely speak to each other or his teenage daughter (by another mother) Lucy (India Eisley, daughter of Olivia Hussey). All three are grieving in their own way - emotionally isolated from the others. Grace aggressively swims laps day and night in the pool at their stunning modern mansion. Lucy has been expelled from her private school for snorting cocaine during Science Lab. Philip immerses himself in his work with clients, and we know he's smart because he's wearing glasses.

One client with whom Philip takes a special interest is Daphne (Emily Alyn Lind, DOCTOR SLEEP, 2019), a troubled young lady from a troubled family. To help Daphne deal with boyfriend issues, Philip uses unconventional personal therapy, which he then presents as a Case Study for students ... against the wishes of his boss and friend Vanessa (Veronica Ferres). This backfires when Daphne seemingly commits suicide, and her grieving brother James (Sam Claflin, THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY) shows up.

At this point, everyone is grieving and Philip's career begins to crumble as he's blamed for Daphne's suicide. James turns on the charm for Grace and Lucy, and even though the characters don't get it, every viewer will recognize what's happening, why it's happening, and where it's headed. Even this would be fine if things played out in a clever manner, rather than over-the-top and obvious. Even the Rorschach inkblot tests used as artwork in the pristine Clark mansion are cause for eye rolls. Claflin probably has the most fun of any with his role, but it's Monaghan who comes closest to molding a full dimensional human out of her character. Affleck just adds yet another despondent, joyless character to his resume ... though he does get to throw one tantrum while sitting in his car - alone, of course. Fortunately, these actors will assuredly move on to projects more worthy of their talents.

In select theatres and premium VOD on April 2, 2021.
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Amundsen (2019)
what drives the man
1 April 2021
Greetings again from the darkness. Director Espen Sandberg continues his string of movies highlighting the heroes of Norway. Previous movies include MAX MANUS: MAN OF WAR (2008) and the Oscar nominated KON-TIKI (2012), the tale of legendary explorer Thor Heyerdahl. And then to earn some coin, Sandberg also directed PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES (2017). This latest project, written by Ravn Lanesskog, takes on another legendary explorer - this time it's Roald Amundsen, the first to traverse the Northwest Passage, the first to reach the South Pole, and the first to reach the North Pole by plane.

Pal Sverre Hagen stars as Roald Amundsen, and he also played Thor Heyerdahl in Sandberg's KON-TIKI. Hagen bears a striking resemblance to the photos of Amundsen, and utilizes a low key, yet very direct communication style to give us a look at the relentless commitment to achieving his goals. We learn he held grudges - against the Brits and even against his own brother - and used this as motivation. Director Sandberg uses a conversation as a framing device throughout the film. Roald's estranged brother Leon (Christian Rubeck, SWIMMING WITH MEN, 2018) and Roald's lover Bess Magids (Katherine Waterston, THE WORLD TO COME, 2020) share their insights and perspective while awaiting word on Roald's latest excursion. This begins after the opening sequence where we see Roald's prop plane crash land on an Arctic ice shelf.

Of course, this is the story of one of the greatest explorers and adventurers in history, so there is a nice blend of that conversation, some backstory, and a first-hand look at some of Roald's expeditions. The elements are incredibly harsh, but Sandberg never lingers too long on any one piece of this puzzle. It seems he is more interested in what made Roald tick - what drove him to these pursuits at the expense of most relationships. The rivalry with the Brits is clear and we see the humiliation Roald endured after besting Robert Falcon Scott to the South Pole. Rather than accolades, he faced criticism and judgment of his methods.

Roald Amundsen was clearly not a man to rest on his laurels, even after being presumed dead on more than one occasion. He was always a body in motion. We see his childhood fascination towards unexplored areas. No map? No problem. Roald's harsh treatment of his brother is explored, and it's interesting to note the differences in how Bess and Leon describe Roald. Amundsen went missing while on an Arctic rescue mission in 1928. He was 55 years old, but looked 20 years beyond that. This film is not hero worship or even a traditional tribute. Then again, maybe it's the type of tribute a man like Roald Amundsen would appreciate. For those who wish to learn more, search out the 6-hour 1985 PBS mini-series, "The Last Place on Earth." Opening in Virtual Cinemas and VOD April 2nd.
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