BEST OF 2022

January 31, 2023

Yes, I finally got around to compiling my best of 2022, and you can find the page at this link:


LIVING (2022)

January 29, 2023

Greetings again from the darkness. That uneasy feeling will likely never fade for me … the anxiety when one of the classic movies of yesteryear gets a remake from a contemporary filmmaker with their own vision. Sometimes the new version is a respected tribute to the original, while other times, the director believes they can improve on the classic. In this case, director Oliver Hermanus and screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro (THE REMAINS OF THE DAY, 1993) clearly have love for Akira Kurosawa’s IKIRU (1952), one of the true classics of cinema. Moving the setting from Japan to 1953 England proves an easy transition thanks to a remarkable lead performance.

After the nostalgic, retro-styled opening credits, we learn about Williams (the always fascinating Bill Nighy), a manager in the Public Works Department. He’s a stoic man of discipline – the kind his staff can set their watches by. In fact, it the department and staff seem to be a perfect example of perfected bureaucratic logjam. Some of our early insight into Williams comes from Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp), the new hire just learning the ropes. By the time Williams heads to his doctor’s appointment, we have a good feel for what a repressed creature of habit he is. This allows us to fully appreciate Nighy’s performance after Williams is diagnosed with a terminal illness.

As we have seen in many ‘cancer dramas’, upon receiving the bleak news, Williams decides to cut loose with a rare (maybe first ever) wild night on the town. He befriends Sutherland (Tom Burke, THE SOUVENIR: PART 1), a writer who acts as a guide through the pubs and becomes the first person to whom Williams discloses his state … a disclosure he chooses not to make to his own self-centered son. Next, Williams begins his first ever search for life … a way to actually live, rather than merely exist. This leads him to strike up an awkward friendship with Margaret Harris (Aimee Lee Wood, THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN, 2021), a former Public Works staffer who left the stifling work environment.

Ms. Harris is very forthcoming with Williams and even admits to giving him a most telling and uncomplimentary nickname. The gentleman is fascinated by Ms. Harris’ spirit and seems to come more alive just being around her. Of course, this raises eyebrows amongst the judgmental masses. Williams is inspired by her and his improved outlook, and this makes a difference at work where he approves a local project that had been previously ignored. A playground in the poorer section of town offers a chance for Williams to leave his mark, while also setting the future tone of the department.

It’s unusual for a film to kill off the main character so soon during the story, but this allows the third act to provide commentary on legacy and the aftermath of one’s death. Sometimes the little things we do matter, and they make up the legacy we leave. Nighy’s Oscar nominated performance is the epitome of nuance. His understated mannerisms display the opposite of living life on the edge. He also tamps down his usual cheekiness to capture the essence of Williams. The sweeping score from Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch perfectly captures the tone, and the film reminds us that the meaning of our life is whatever we make it.

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AFTERSUN (2022)

January 28, 2023

Greetings again from the darkness. There are two reasons I was excited to see Paul Mescal nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in this film. First, he deserved it. Secondly, it offers hope that more people will seek out this terrific, albeit heartbreaking, debut feature film from writer-director Charlotte Wells.

Calum (Paul Mescal, THE LOST DAUGHTER, 2021) takes his 11-year-old daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio) on a vacation to a resort in Turkey, where they swim and frolic in the sun. Even though she lives with her mother, Sophie and her dad have a close bond. She’s a very observant and perceptive girl, which is crucial given that Calum is a loving and caring dad, but he’s also displaying some disturbing signs of depression. What’s terrific here is that Sophie is smart, but not over-the-top; while Calum is a good dad, but not flawless. In other words, these are two normal people spending time together.

There is a sadness to Calum, even though he is patient and charming. He thinks he hides more from Sophie than he actually does. His calm demeanor on the outside is clearly hiding burning emotions that his tai chi can’t cover. While Calum is teetering in life, Sophie is teetering between independence and being daddy’s girl. She recognizes his anxiety but doesn’t yet possess the savvy or experience to know what it means – although she states this gem, “It’s nice that we share the same sky.” What a lovely sentiment.

The vacation is set in the 1990’s, however the twist served by filmmaker Wells is that adult Sophie (played in glimpses by Celia Rowlson-Hall) is reminiscing some twenty years in the future by re-watching the camcorder tapes from that vacation. She’s looking back with a different filter on what she experienced with her dad … searching for additional insight to the man she so adored. Sophie has visions of watching her dad on the dance floor as “Under Pressure” blasts under the strobe lights. This prevents her (or us) from interpreting these as memories of bliss. Rather it’s her search for meaning. Charlotte Wells drew inspiration for this story from her own childhood vacation with her dad. This is the first screen appearance for young Frankie Corio, but she perfectly captures the close relationship with dad. As movie lovers, we can only hope this is the start of a special story-telling career for Charlotte Wells, but even if this is her peak, it’s a gem few ever match.

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CLOSE (2022)

January 27, 2023

Greetings again from the darkness. Coming of age stories are immensely popular in literature and cinema. And why not? We all go through the stages (some more effectively than others). Writer-director Lukas Dhont is no stranger to backlash and criticism after his 2018 feature film debut, GIRL, and the approach he took on transgender issues. This time the topic is different, yet his approach still opens him up to additional criticism. However, if the viewer isn’t on a quest for controversy, this story from Dhont and co-writer Angelo Tissens is quite touching.

Leo (Eden Dambine) and Remi (Gustav De Waele) are 13-year-old best friends. The thing we notice immediately is that their bond is unusually close, even for adolescent buddies. They each seem complete only when in the presence of the other. Remi is a very sensitive young man who excels at playing oboe on the school stage as he’s cheered on by Leo.

Of course we all know that 13-year-old classmates are not known for tact and diplomacy, and soon the biting comments find flesh (so to speak). Remi mostly pays no mind to the cracks, but Leo starts to question the friendship. He seeks out other connections, and even finds a way to appear more macho, despite his androgynous appearance and mannerisms.

Remarkably, both of these young men are first time actors. Mr. Dambine has an especially appealing screen presence. Also effective are Emilie Dequenne and Lea Drucker as the boys’ mothers, yet mostly the focus here is on the boys and how pure their emotions are until corrupted by others. Also at the forefront is a theme of learning to deal with loss and guilt, even at a young age. It can be easy to dismiss such films as manipulative, yet sometimes the writing and acting are such that the story strikes the right note. That’s what filmmaker Lukas Dhont has done here, and he’s rewarded Belgium with an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film.

Opening in limited theaters on January 27, 2023

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LIFE UPSIDE DOWN (2023)

January 27, 2023

Greetings again from the darkness. When watching and reviewing films, I strive to be objective and observant, while putting some thought into what the creator(s) hoped to achieve with the project. However, this is my upfront disclosure that it’s January 2023 and I seem to have had my fill of ‘Pandemic movies.’

That statement is not meant as an affront to writer-director Cecilia Miniucchi or the cast in this film – some of whom are extremely talented. Instead, it’s my personal confession that, over the past couple of years, I’ve seen enough movies where creative photography was used to highlight the misery we all faced during the recent pandemic lockdowns. This particular movie does make an effort to comment more specifically on how differently the upper-middle class dealt with the challenges.

It opens in a Los Angeles art gallery in October 2019, as art dealer Jonathan (Bob Odenkirk, “Better Call Saul”) sneaks in a wham-bam with his mistress Clarissa (Radha Mitchell), just as his wife Sue (Jeanie Lim) shows up. After re-adjusting her wardrobe, Clarissa tries to encourage her well-off friend Paul (Danny Huston) to purchase one of the paintings on display in Jonathan’s gallery. This sequence is relatively short, but we learn much about the key players and their personalities.

We then flash forward a few months to March 2020 when the lockdowns kick in, and COVID makes masks and isolation a part of life. Since Clarissa is a professor, we get a taste of online teaching through Zoom. We are told that FaceTime is our virtual self being interpreted by Wi-Fi, although these technological features provided the only form of socialization and connection for so many people over months. “Stay safe and sane” became our standard and recognized send-off rather than “have a nice day.”

As a single woman, Clarissa is always available for FaceTime and texts from Jonathan, who contrastingly, tries to steal a moment or two from his ever-present wife while taking out the trash or some other menial task that might provide some space. And it’s that space and time apart that slowly changes the dynamics of a hot relationship built on the physical aspect. As the calendar pushes forward, Jonathan becomes stressed over pending financial disaster, and the possibility of losing his identity tied to the gallery. This worries him more than Clarissa’s loneliness (or birthday).

Paul, a smug, quasi-intellectual writer, is working on his next book and his inability to connect with his younger wife Rita (Rosie Fellner) exacerbates their own intimacy issues, sending his possible art purchase from Jonathan to the back burner. It’s during this time where Clarissa takes notice of Darius (Cyrus Pahlavi), her unusual tenant who also is a bit lonely (and recognizes an opportunity).

These characters and filmmaker Miniucchi teach us that “there is no perfect love”, and mostly seem to reinforce two things: human connection is vital to our emotional well-being, and the entitled among us are not immune to the effects of isolation, even if they are in a better position to handle it. We’ve seen it all before, however, “be that as it may …”

Opens on January 27, 2023

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THE SON (2023)

January 20, 2023

Greetings again from the darkness. Writer-director Florian Zeller floored me a couple of years ago with his film, THE FATHER (2021). Adapted from Zeller’s own play by screenwriter Christopher Hampton (DANGEROUS LIAISONS, 1988), the film starred Anthony Hopkins who gave a searing performance that provided painful insight into what living with dementia must be like – both for the sufferer and for loved ones. Zeller, Hampton, and Hopkins all won Oscars for that film, and they return for this follow-up … a film that doesn’t hold a candle to its predecessor, despite begging us to think otherwise.

Hugh Jackman stars as Peter, an incredibly busy and important Manhattan lawyer who wears fancy suits, works in a corner office with a view, and attends vital meetings with high-profile clients. Peter has a beautiful wife Beth (Vanessa Kirby) and newborn son, and is on the verge of entering high stakes politics as a consultant when his ex-wife Kate (Oscar winner Laura Dern, MARRIAGE STORY, 2019) knocks on the door of Peter’s and Beth’s charming (and high rent) apartment. Kate informs him that their 17-year-old son Nicholas (Zen McGrath) has skipped school every day for the past month, and now wants to come live with his dad. Convinced he’s a better father than his own, Peter believes he must allow Nicholas to move in, and Beth is so committed to Peter and exhausted from caring for the baby, that she offers no resistance.

Peter is a professional problem solver and somehow this brilliant lawyer believes a couple of lectures and pep talks will cure Nicholas of his teenage blues and get him on the right track towards success. He’s convinced his efforts are working and that Nicholas is improving … right up until the point where it’s obvious, he’s not. How all these folks take so long to recognize mental illness and depression is beyond comprehension. Sure, Nicholas is manipulative; he knows what these adults want to hear, and he tells them. The ridiculous part is they believe him.

The film’s best scene is the one where Peter faces his own father. Two-time Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins is a powerful force as the one who scoffs at Peter’s viewpoint of parenthood, both past and present. This scene could have made a terrific short film and is so insightful that it’s at odds with the balance of the film. Unfortunately, much of the rest plays like a made-for-TV movie with its slick stylings on poor parenting and teenage issues. There are a few moments early on that give off a horror film vibe, but that’s not what this is. Instead, it’s an attempt to reflect modern day parenting and the helpless feelings of guilt we feel when our kids are suffering. Hopefully most parents are a bit more attuned to their teens, and we also hope that most schools don’t wait a full month before alerting parents that their kid has dropped out.

Opens in theaters on January 20, 2022

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AFTER LOVE (2023)

January 20, 2023

Greetings again from the darkness. There are multiple ways one can interpret the first feature film from writer-director Aleem Khan; however for me, this worked best as a study of identity – how we define ourselves and our life. It’s an unusual start to a story. A woman is going about her normal kitchen duties, preparing tea for her husband who is relaxing in the other room after an event. Before the opening credits roll, the man suddenly and unexpectedly passes away. This sends the wife into grief and shock … although an even bigger shock awaits her.

Joanna Scanlan plays Mary, the wife. She’s an Englishwoman and converted Muslim. While organizing her late husband’s wallet, phone, and texts, she comes across information that spurs her curiosity and sends her on a journey via train, ferry, and taxi, 21 miles across the English Channel to Calais. There are three ‘natural’ reactions to finding out your spouse has a secret family. First, confront them about it … not possible in this case. Second, shrug it off and move on with your life. Third, confront the ‘other’ family. Somehow, Mary finds a way to botch her confrontation. She ends up being mistaken for the cleaning woman by Genevieve (Nathalie Richard), and Mary finds herself inside the home where a family picture – quite similar to the one Mary carries – sits on display. Also surprising is the presence of a teenage boy named Solomon (Talid Ariss).

The next few days are quite awkward for Mary and us viewers. She’s helping pack up Genevieve’s belongings for an upcoming move, and Mary’s husband’s shirts are included in these items. A striking contrast of physicality exists between the two women, and Mary quietly entrenches herself into the lives of Genevieve and Solomon, who struggle with a strained mother-son relationship. We can’t help but wonder how this quandary will resolve, and the longer it goes on, the more challenging it becomes for Mary to come clean.

Director Khan includes numerous variations on cracks, splits, fissures, and breaks … some more subtle than others. Each represents the collapse of the façade Mary previously understood as her life. She even catches herself making two cups of tea out of habit, and repeatedly listening to the final saved voicemail from her husband … desperately searching for assurances of his love or clues that she might have missed. Frequent movie watchers will recognize the lead actors here, as Ms. Scanlan (NOTES ON A SCANDAL, 2004) and Ms. Richard (CACHE’, 2005) work frequently. Composer Chris Roe’s string score blends nicely with the on screen stress as the pulling back the curtain on one man’s life exposes the fractured world of others. Love, grief, and identity, are all on trial here as we are reminded to find our own identity.

Opens in theaters on January 20, 2023

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WOMEN TALKING (2023)

January 12, 2023

Greetings again from the darkness. Do nothing. Stay and fight. Leave. Those are the three options a group of women debate in the loft of a barn on the edge of their religious commune. The true story that inspired Miriam Toews to write her 2018 novel is horrific. Between 2005 and 2009, there were more than 150 cases of females being drugged (with livestock tranquilizers) and violently raped. They ranged in age from three to sixty-five, and this occurred in a deeply religious Mennonite community in Bolivia. The great writer-director Sarah Polley has adapted Ms. Toews’ novel for her first feature since STORIES WE TELL (2012), and we welcome her back as a voice always deserving of a platform.

When two girls spot a rapist running away one evening, an emotional fire is lit. The man is charged, and this leads the women to organize their own meeting to discuss the three options noted above. Rooney Mara plays Ona, the good-hearted optimist. Claire Foy plays her sister Salome who spends much time in rage mode. Jessie Buckley is Mariche, the often brutally abused woman who has her own strong ideas. If you are a movie lover, you immediately recognize that these three are among the best young actresses working today. What a pleasure to watch them do what they do … despite the material often being extremely uncomfortable and stress-inducing. This new generation of community women are joined in debate by the elders: Agata (Judith Ivey) and Greta (Sheila McCarthy), who both carry the burden of shame having raised their daughters in this environment. Scarface Janz (Oscar winner Frances McDormand, also a producer on the film) only has a couple of scenes, as she is stays strong in her ”do nothing” stance.

As the dialogue continues in the loft, we learn much about what these women, as well as the generations before them, have endured. Over the years, whenever victims have spoken up about the horrible abuses, their accusations have been dismissed as “wild female imagination.” The religious patriarchy has led to many years of submission and resignation to a lesser life – one that includes manual labor and a lack of education. These women cannot read or write, so they have asked August (an excellent Ben Whishaw) to take notes and list the pros and cons of the options. August is a gentle soul and the local schoolteacher who has an eye towards Ona.

Revenge, forgiveness, protecting one’s self and their children is all part of the discussion, as is the difference between fleeing and leaving. These women are finding their voice through the strength of each other. Cinematographer Luc Montpellier uses mostly black and white with some subtle color gradation for effect, as well as a contrast between interior (barn loft) shots and those of the outdoor vistas and fields (representing the outside world). The score from Hildur Guonadottier is heavy on strings and works perfectly for the story, and the inclusion of “Daydream Believer” from The Monkees is a welcome inclusion.

We don’t normally think of cinema as watching people sit around and talk. One of the best ever movies showing debate among adults is 12 ANGRY MEN, and this film takes a similar approach and is not far off from the level of that all-time classic. The courage of those real women from Bolivia was staggering, and Sarah Polley offers up this intellectual and thought-provoking approach to these women taking stock of their situation. It’s a gut punch, yet somehow inspiring.

Opens in theaters on January 13, 2023

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COME FIND ME (2023)

January 12, 2023

Greetings again from the darkness. Writer-director Daniel Poliner delivers two movies in one. And while that may be a real value when shopping, it can be a bit counterproductive in moviemaking. We begin with the story of Christina (Victoria Cartagena, “Gotham”), a Latina senior associate on the Partner path at her law firm, despite the unrealistic expectations from her boss. Christina is stressed-out and beaten down. She’s worried about a pro bono client who can’t seem to shake her abusive boyfriend. Christina is also trying to help her mother straighten out her finances, and if all that isn’t enough, she just found out she’s pregnant … the father is another lawyer in the firm.

This first section of the film draws us in to Christina’s saga. She clearly cares about her career, while understanding that a step off the fast-moving treadmill would probably do her good. Her mother Gloria (Sol Miranda, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) is frustrated that Christina doesn’t visit her more often and the two seem to have an unsettled relationship. Once this story has us hooked, filmmaker Poliner abruptly shifts gears, and this becomes Gloria’s story two years later. She’s a career teacher-principal at an inner-city school and is nearing retirement … and it’s the week of Christina’s wedding, which means events with the soon-to-be Jewish in-laws. We quickly realize Gloria is out of place at the rehearsal dinner.

The groom’s mother is played by the always interesting Tovah Feldshuh, but even that’s not enough to keep us on track. Director Poliner makes some interesting creative choices by showing a few sequences playing out slightly differently each time. These visions seem to represent the way memories work by displaying the variances in what we recall, how we wish a moment played out, and what actually happened. It’s like the internal dialogue come to life, while mixing past and present. Both Christina and Gloria have their internal light flashing – literally, at times. Gloria’s story, though it could have been every bit as interesting as Christina’s part one, ends up a bit confusing. Supporting work comes courtesy of Ryan Woodle, Andrew Polk, and Adam LeFevre, and while a creative approach is always welcome, we viewers do hope to make sense of what we see on screen.

Opening in theaters and On Demand on January 13, 2023

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A MAN CALLED OTTO (2023)

January 5, 2023

Greetings again from the darkness. Grumpy people are everywhere these days. In fact, two-time Oscar winner and all-around likable guy Tom Hanks (FORREST GUMP, PHILADELPHIA) may be the only one who catches us off-guard when he’s grumpy. Here, Hanks plays Otto, the neighborhood curmudgeon who patrols the community daily drenched in full-fledged annoyance over topics like pets, recycling, traffic, and parking. In fact, Otto is annoyed by most people and just about everything they do (and these days, who amongst us isn’t).

The film is an American remake of the Oscar nominated Swedish film, A MAN CALLED OVE (2015), which featured a terrific titular performance from Rolf Lassgard. Both films have been adapted from Fredrik Backman’s novel, “A Man Called Ove”, with writer-director Hannes Holm behind the 2015 version, and screenwriter David Magee (LIFE OF PI, 2012) and director Marc Forster driving this one. Mr. Forster has previously directed some interesting and diverse movies including, MONSTER’S BALL (2001), FINDING NEVERLAND (2004), STRANGER THAN FICTION (2006), THE KITE RUNNER (2007), QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008), WORLD WAR Z (2013), and CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2018).

We join Otto on his morning rounds, and that’s when we witness his constant annoyance on display, while also meeting some of his neighbors like Jimmy the friendly power walker (played by Cameron Britton), as well as the ultra-friendly new neighbors, very pregnant Marisol (a superb Mariana Trevino), her husband Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and their herd of young kids. There is also Otto’s estranged friend Reuben (Peter Lawson Jones), who is now very sick, his wife Anita (Juanita Jennings), and Malcolm (Mack Bayda) a local boy whose parents kicked him out because he’s transgender. Malcolm has a connection to Otto’s late wife, and it’s her passing that has not only caused Otto’s personality to shift into grump mode, but also pushed him to explore ways to join her ‘in a better place’, although he can’t quite manage the next step.

Marisol is really the major force in the story, as her unrelenting friendliness and persistence in connecting with Otto, slowly breaks down his defense as he finds a reason to live. Director Forster uses flashbacks to help us understand Otto’s background. Hanks’ own son Truman Hanks plays him as a young Otto, while Rachel Keller portrays young Sonya, the girl that wins his heart. A devastating personal tragedy can certainly impact a person to the point where their personality and outlook changes; however, we also see how a positive influence … here with Marisol … can help pull someone out of a dark emotional hole.

Tom Hanks (coming off his roles as Colonel Tom Parker in ELVIS and Geppetto in PINOCCHIO) is so familiar to movie goers that it’s comical to see him go full grump, although it should be noted that he’s more Walter Matthau in BAD NEWS BEARS (1976) or GRUMPY OLD MEN (1993) than he is Clint Eastwood growling “Get off my lawn” in GRAN TORINO (2008). In other words, despite some similarities to ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002), the film is never quite as dark as it portends, even with Otto’s congenital heart issue and the redevelopment threats from the perfectly named Dye & Merica Real Estate Company. This is designed and presented as a sentimental mainstream film that is easily relatable, and it will undoubtedly have that appeal.

Opens in theaters on January 6, 2023

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