THE LAST OUT (2022, doc)

October 3, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Most kids raised in the United States are encouraged to pursue “the American Dream”, however they might define that. For many high school and college baseball players, that means training with an eye towards the major league draft held each year. Co-directors Sami Khan and Michael Gassert explore the fascinating difference for young baseball players in Cuba. With economic sanctions in place against Cuba since 1963, those young players hoping against all odds for a shot at “the show”, must leave their family behind and train in another country.

The film focuses on three players training in Costa Rica: Happy Oliveros, Victor Baro, and Carlos Gonzalez. Filming took place over a few years, and while we can appreciate the sacrifices and commitment these young men display, we only get a taste of their challenges. It’s Los Angeles-based Gus Dominguez, a Cuban-American agent, who finances their training and living expenses, with an agreement that he will take 20% of their signing bonus should an MLB team come calling. We also learn that Mr. Dominguez spent 5 years in prison for human smuggling – bringing folks in illegally from Cuba. Gus has been able to quickly rebuild his career since it’s built on the dreams and desperation of those with few choices.

We see some of the daily training, the try-outs, and the combine in front of MLB scouts. It goes to show the fine line between “enough” talent and “not enough”. These scouts wield great power and control over the young men who have sacrificed so much to get to this point. Shifting tone quickly once Happy gets cut, the film becomes even more in-line with modern day struggles and politics. Rather than return to Cuba, Happy embarks on a journey towards seeking asylum in the United States. Some of the footage of his trip is heart-stopping. While the mental side of his baseball pursuit was difficult, it paled in comparison to this.

At the time filming was completed, only 6 Cuban players had reached the big leagues. Hundreds had tried. Those childhood dreams are the same as every high school player out there … the Cubans just have significantly longer odds of success. We are left to decide if this process exploits these young players or instead offers them their only chance of reaching that childhood dream shared by so many. It’s an eye-opening film that manages to be both bleak and inspirational.

Debuts on PBS Television nationwide on October 3, 2022 and will stream for free on PBS.org until November 2, 2022.

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VESPER (2022)

September 30, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. We are always looking to the future, and yet so many movies paint a bleak post-apocalyptic picture of what’s ahead. Co-writers and co-directors Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper, who previously collaborated on VANISHING WAVES (2012), are joined here by co-writer Brian Clark to deliver something that still looks bleak, yet is something that not only has a unique style, it also founds a new sub-genre I’ll call arthouse science fiction.

Raffiella Chapman plays Vesper, a 13-year-old forced to survive off the shredded land while also playing caregiver to her disabled father (Richard Brake). She manages his feeding tube and is followed around by the drone through which he calmly communicates … the floating drone looks a bit like Wilson the volleyball. Vesper is also a bit rebellious and exceedingly clever and intelligent. We first see her scavenging the land for anything useful in feeding Papa or furthering her experiments in her self-made lab located in their own cabin in the woods.

It’s a dreary existence and the film even begins by informing us this is the “new Dark Ages” thanks to an ecological disaster. Genetically engineered seeds are the only hope for food, and most everything is controlled by the Citadel, which is run as an Oligarchy. Those on the outside are left to their own devices, and this includes Vesper and her ruthless Uncle Jonas (Eddie Marsan). When a glider crashes in the woods, Vesper rescues one of the injured inhabitants. Camellia (Rosy McEwen) and her shock of white hair is different … nearly ethereal and otherworldly. The two bond, but something never seems quite right.

We know a showdown is coming, but it may not be the one we expect. The film stresses the importance of the parent-child bond, as well as the importance of altruism. Even more crucial is the impact of the demise of the ecosystem. Filmmakers Buozyte and Samper use minimal special effects (especially for a sci-fi film), and still manage to create a world that seems quite real and populated with unrecognizable organisms. A cool score by Dan Levy accompanies a world that may have limited resources, but still features class division and a lust for power among some. Will we ever learn?  Probably not. But a terrific performance from young Ms. Chapman and the hopeful vision of the filmmakers inspires us to keep trying.

In theaters and VOD beginning September 30, 2022

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BLONDE (2022)

September 28, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. For those who have studied Marilyn Monroe’s personal and professional life, writer-director Andrew Dominik’s (first feature film since KILLING THEM SOFTLY, 2012) interpretative adaptation of the 2000 novel by Joyce Carol Oates may send them into the early stages of shock. In fact, regardless of one’s level of knowledge of the details of Marilyn’s background, shock and bewilderment are likely reactions. It should be made clear for all viewers that it’s a fictionalized account of her life, not a true biography. One should also know that this is cinematic artistic mastery to complement an incredibly in-depth and revolutionary performance from Ana de Armas (KNIVES OUT, 2019, NO TIME TO DIE, 2021).

At times, the film is surreal, while at others, downright hallucinatory. It’s certainly never boring. However, it’s a disturbing beatdown and a grueling watch for a single sitting at close to three hours long. The film begins in 1933 with a young Norma Jeane (Lily Fisher) living in poverty and misery with her single mom Gladys (a terrific Julianne Nicholson). Mom has obvious mental issues and would much prefer Norma Jeane not be around. It’s here where the ‘Daddy issues’ take hold – issues that stick with the girl for the remainder of her life. After being rejected by her father, her mother, and the friendly neighbors, Norma Jeane ends up in an orphanage. A montage takes us through her teenage modeling years, where we see the beginnings of her being taken advantage of and treated as a commodity.

There is an extended sequence involving the threesome of Marilyn and the sons of Hollywood legends Charlie Chaplin and Edward G Robinson (Xavier Samuel, Evan Williams, respectively), and a vicious rape scene with a studio head “Mr. Z” (hmmm). Marilyn’s first pregnancy leads to an abortion, which is the first of a few tragedies she will experience – and director Dominik finds an entirely new (and bizarre) method of filming these occurrences. The Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) and Arthur Miller (Oscar winner Adrien Brody) marriages are noted, yet the men go unnamed, instead referred to as “former athlete” and “playwright” … as if somehow that will trick us.

Of course, all of these relationships are right in line with her “Daddy issues” … Marilyn even goes so far as to call these men “Daddy”, in hopes that one will finally give her the love and acceptance she so craves. One of the more uncomfortable scenes (and that’s saying something) involves her tryst with JFK (also unnamed), played by Caspar Phillipson, whose uncanny resemblance to the former President has resulted in his casting for the role in multiple projects. It’s likely this White House moment, replete with Marilyn’s inner voice, is responsible for the film’s NC-17 rating.

Dominik and cinematographer Chase Irvin recreate some of the most memorable film moments from Marilyn’s career … including the subway vent scene from THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH. After capturing that film magic, the sequence seems to drag on with leering onlookers and what proved to be the final straw with DiMaggio. A recurring feature involves Marilyn receiving and reading letters from the father she’s never met – including promises of meeting “soon.” The payoff for this is disappointing for us and for her.

Perhaps the main point of Dominik’s movie is the enormous gulf and psychological contrast between Norma Jeane, the eternally-scarred young girl, and Marilyn Monroe, the iconic bombshell she created for public consumption. There is a sadness about her most of the time, even when she flips that switch to become Marilyn – the familiar sultress adored by so many. Toby Huss plays Whitey, a version of real-life Allan Snyder, who was Marilyn’s long-time make-up artist and confidant. Her famous diary gets a mention, and we see the price she paid for taking drugs to calm anxiety while dealing with the crushing weight of fame.

Ana de Armas delivers a performance for the ages. Of course, the scrutiny she will face playing one of the most famous women of all-time will be senselessly nitpicky, yet from an artistic standpoint, her work is supreme. Costume Designer Jennifer Johnson somehow manages to nail the different stages, films, and moods (of both the film and its subject). Is this exploiting the woman who made a career out of being exploited? Or is it simply telling a story? Norma Jeane was a fragile creature constantly victimized as she desperately searched for love. Has the filmmaker continued that abuse with this vision? From a moviemaking aspect, it’s’ a thing of beauty. From a human perspective, it’s torturous to watch. If you are in need of a ‘feel-good’ movie, keep searching. On the other hand, if you are in the mood for the work of a cinematic visionary and one of the best acting performances of the year, settle in.

Opens on Netflix September 28, 2022

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RAILWAY CHILDREN (2022)

September 27, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. We probably need more family-style movies covering serious topics and worldly events in a style that makes it amenable for kids to watch and learn. I tried to keep that in mind while watching this film from director Morgan Matthews (A BRILLIANT YOUNG MIND, 2014) and co-writers Daniel Brocklehurst and Jemma Rodgers. It should be noted that it also serves as a pseudo-sequel to the classic 1970 film directed by Lionel Jeffries, which was adapted from the beloved novel by British author Edith Nesbit.

An opening at the Train depot in 1944 finds many mothers tearfully hugging their kids goodbye as they help them board. It’s war time and parents will do anything they can to protect their offspring – even if it means an unknown future and the chance they will never see them again. We follow three particular siblings: Lily (Beau Gadsdon), the eldest; Pattie (Eden Hamilton), clever but not as old as she wishes; and Ted (Zac Cudby), the youngest. The three are from Salford and headed towards the safer countryside, where bombs aren’t as likely to rain down.

Upon arrival, the kids are taken in by Roberta “Bobbie” Waterbury (Jenny Agutter) and her daughter Annie (Sheridan Smith). Ms. Agutter reprises her role as “Bobbie”, which she played in the original film some 52 years ago. She’s now grandmother to Annie’s son Thomas (Austin Haynes), who quickly bonds with the new arrivals. Annie is also the local schoolmistress charged with making sure the kids keep up with their studies.

Lily carries the weight of being the oldest child, and the others look to her for direction when they stumble upon Abe (KJ Aikens), an injured young American soldier gone AWOL. He’s hiding out in a disabled train car, and no one knows what to make of him, other than they want to help. This is the “serious” side of the story, and it’s balanced with often silly-type sequences. As an example, the new kids are out of their element with farm life, and of course, we get the pratfall of slipping in the mud, followed by the giggles.

Tom Courtenay appears as the mysterious Uncle Walter, while John Bradley is the station master. Homages to the original include Lily dreaming of seeing her military dad through the steam of the locomotive, and we see the local kids banning together to create signs and noise to stop a passing train. The aspects of racism are a bit heavy-handed, but not to the extreme of the overly dramatic, and at times, overbearing music (meant to generate viewer reaction). It’s easy to dismiss the film as fluff due to it’s “after school programming” feel, but again, that is purposeful, and through young eyes, it should work.

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THE GREATEST BEER RUN EVER (2022)

September 25, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. “Can I buy you a drink?” A simple phrase that can have a variety of meanings. In 1967, John “Chickie” Donohue did more than buy his buddies a drink. He hand-delivered beer after tracking them down at their military posts during the Vietnam War. Writer-director Peter Farrelly (an Oscar winner for GREEN BOOK, 2018) and co-writers Brian Hayes Currie (also an Oscar winner GREEN BOOK) and Pete Jones (HALL PASS, 2011) tell the story of Chickie’s dubious trip to the front lines. His mission was to show the neighborhood boys that folks back home care, and the results proved eye-opening.

Zac Efron plays Chickie Donohue, a Merchant Marine from the Inwood neighborhood of New York City. Chickie is a hard-drinking slacker and kind of a joke to his family and friends. He doesn’t really take life seriously and has no perceivable ambition. He is, however, a staunch defender of his country and the military personnel fighting a war that no one seems to be able to define. Especially ‘the boys’ from the neighborhood … too many who have died for the cause. One typically “full of hot air” evening at the local tavern where “The Colonel” (Bill Murray) tends bars, hones patriotism, and honors those who (like him) have served in war, Chickie blurts out his intention to head to Vietnam and hand-deliver a beer to each of his buddies stationed there. His drinking cohorts support his idea, yet fully believe this is simply the next thing that Chickie will never follow through on.

To everyone’s surprise, and despite pleas from his anti-war sister (played by Andy Serkis’ daughter Ruby Ashbourne Serkis), Chickie loads up a duffel bag with dozens of cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and heads out. That seems to be the extent of his plan because he basically has to charm and ‘luck’ his way through each progressive stop once he has secured a spot on a container ship headed that way. In the film, he secures a 72-hour leave, but in real life, as documented in the memoir written by John “Chick” Donohue and JT Molloy, his journey took almost 8 weeks.

The film plays a bit like a road trip, where Chickie interacts with multiple characters along the way. Some in the military mistake him for undercover CIA, which he uses to his advantage. At a Saigon bar, Chickie debates with war correspondents, including a photojournalist played by Oscar winner Russell Crowe. Chickie questions why they report “only the bad stuff”, which is tough on morale back home, while the reporters counter with the defense of only telling the truth. A later part of Chickie’s journey finds him in the middle of the Tet Offensive, running for his life with Crowe’s character.

Director Farrelly, long celebrated as an iconic comedic filmmaker with his brother Peter, doesn’t break any new ground here, but the remarkable true story keeps us watching. In fact, it feels a bit like a war movie from the 1950s … mostly light, with a well-meaning, charming lead actor with limited range. Songs from the era are included, and the message seems to be that politicians don’t always tell the truth (an obvious fact that we live with every day). Chickie’s personal post-trip pledge of ‘less drinking, more thinking’ would be a good direction for many, and Farrelly includes a modern-day photo of Chickie and the boys from the neighborhood over the closing credits. A nice touch.

Opening in limited theaters on September 23, 2022 and on AppleTV+ beginning September 30, 2022

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THE JUSTICE OF BUNNY KING (2022)

September 25, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Most of us are quick to judge others. Often too quick. This superb (and bleak) feature film debut from writer-director Gaysorn Thavat reminds us that our initial judgments might just be an easy “out” for us so that we may go on about our way, oblivious to the struggles of others. There is observational commentary here on what it means for a parent to love their kids so deeply, for someone to believe in themselves whole-heartedly, and for the pain an institution can cause under the guise of doing the right thing.

Essie Davis (THE BABADOOK, 2014) delivers a ferocious and authentic performance as Bunny, who is much stronger than we might originally think. Is she more determined or desperate? We aren’t sure. She’s also very clever at times, though sometimes unable to control her emotions. Bunny’s focus is on securing housing so that Social Services will permit her kids to live with her. Currently, she’s only allowed supervised visits, and we see loves them intensely. Shannon (Amelia Baynes) is a disabled 5-year-old who loves her back, while Reuben (Angus Stevens) is an angry and frustrated 14-year old who just wants a ‘normal’ life that doesn’t involve foster homes.

Bunny is perpetual motion. She describes herself as self-employed, spending days as a “Squeegee Bandit” cleaning windshields at stoplights for loose change. She’s saving that change in a soda bottle that she keeps in the linen closet of her sister’s house. It’s here where she cleans house, cooks dinner, does laundry, and watches kids all for the benefit of getting to sleep on the couch. Her sister Grace (Toni Potter) is a late shift nurse whose husband Bevan (Errol Shand) is a d-bag in so many ways. In fact, Bevan is at the center of an incident with Bunny’s niece Tonyah (Thomasin McKenzie, JOJO RABBIT, 2019; LAST NIGHT IN SOHO, 2021) that cuts right to the heart of Bunny’s character. We see how she reacts and begin to understand how she arrived at this particular lot in life.

Thavat’s co-writers Sophie Henderson (BABY DONE, 2020) and Gregory King center much of Bunny’s actions around the birthday party she has promised daughter Shannon for her upcoming birthday party. Is Bunny fit to be a mother?  Most of the time we think she is devoting every waking moment to reuniting with her kids. However, in her worst moments, she lashes out and displays poor judgment, leaving us and Social Services with serious doubt. The past is brilliantly unfolded and never dwelled on because Bunny wakes up every morning optimistic about what lays ahead. There is a terrific sequence involving her attire, and Ms. Davis just nails the shift in tone. Hers is an award-worthy performance, if only enough people will see the film (which is doubtful). This New Zealand production expertly sets the stage with 4 Non Blondes “What’s Up” and then bookends with a different version by Willa Amai.

Opens in theaters on September 23, 2022

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ESCAPE FROM KABUL (2022, doc)

September 25, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. We watched it play out on television, seemingly getting worse and more tragic and more convoluted by the day. It was painful to watch the United States evacuation of Afghanistan, and now, Jamie Roberts documents what actually happened with previously unseen archival footage supplemented with remarkably candid personal interviews.

The war was in its 18th year when, in 2020, President Trump announced we would be ending the war and bringing our folks home. It was President Biden who gave the final deadline for evacuation by August 2021. Of course, most of us doubted it could happen that swiftly, and given what unfolded, maybe it shouldn’t have.

Previously unseen footage is remarkable, and certainly provides a true sense of what was happening at the time and how our undermanned military faced numerous obstacles – some dangerous, others humanitarian – and performed admirably given the circumstance. The insight from the Marines who were there is especially impactful, and their recollections cut to the quick. Their mission was to evacuate US citizens and “at risk” Afghans who had been helpful to the cause, but we learn the first couple of days were spent evacuating “VIPs” … always a sign of political motivation.

It was literally day 2 (August 15) when the Taliban seized control of Kabul, causing desperation and fear and chaos. The footage is vivid in showing what was happening, and how confusion permeated every action. It’s stunning to watch as Taliban leaders are interviewed and laugh at the US for such a botched plan after a two-decade war. Interviews with some Afghan citizens who made it out display the emotions of those driven from the homes under extreme stress. And those Marines offer the most direct feedback for the operation and the no-win decisions they faced when deciding who could leave.

We have all seen the newscast images of those desperately clinging the airplanes, but what about the canal of sewage many spent days wading in, hoping for a chance to leave? The “deal” struck with the Taliban to allow evacuations is a bit confusing to us, but even more so to the Marines stationed at the time. Despite 124,000 people being evacuated and most of the military equipment destroyed prior to the last plane filled with Marines, it’s still sickening to see the Taliban immediately shift into victory celebration mode. We know where this is headed, and so do those who remained.

An HBO documentary premiering on September 21, 2022

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GOD’S COUNTRY (2022)

September 25, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Do you ever have that feeling that if no one’s going to do something then “I guess I will”? These days it seems our systems and institutions are failing us, and that’s at the heart of what is eating at Sandra (Thandiwe Newton), a college professor living in a remote house in the mountains. When the film opens, she is at the crematorium for her recently deceased mother. Soon after, two hunters park on her land, and their reactions after she politely asks them not to, tells us where this story is headed.

Writer-director Julian Higgins and co-writer Shaye Ogbanna never give Sandra (or us) any reason to think everything is going to be just fine. It’s a slow-burn towards disaster, and we can’t help but watch to see how bad situations turn worse and how the conclusion plays out. Violence is expected … especially after we see how ineffective the local acting Sheriff (Jeremy Bobb) is at his job.

The ”chapters” in this story are actually the days numbered so that we can keep up with the tension. A red truck, an arrow in the door, a police report, a faculty meeting, a church organist, and the disclosure by a student (Tanaya Beatty) all lead us to the dreaded seventh day. The stress builds for Sandra, who manages to hold her tongue quite often, right up until she doesn’t. It’s clear to us that she’s carrying a bitterness and a chip … and seeking vengeance. It’s easy for us to emphasize with Sandra in the first two acts, though it’s likely many will join me in being a bit disappointed in the final act.

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SEE HOW THEY RUN (2022)

September 16, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s 1953 in London’s West End and the cast of “The Mousetrap” is celebrating its 100th performance. Of course, Agatha Christie’s play with the twist ending would go on to be the all-time longest running show in the West End, interrupted only by COVID restrictions in 2020. This is the first feature from director Tom George, and the screenplay by Mark Chappell involves a murder mystery wrapped around the murder mystery play.

Harris Dickinson plays the Dickie Attenborough, the original Detective Sergeant Trotter … and yes, that’s the same Richard Attenborough who played the likable John Hammond, the developer who “spared no expense” in creating Jurassic Park. So while Dickinson plays the detective on stage, it’s Oscar winner Sam Rockwell who plays Inspector Stoppard … the London detective assigned to solve the real murder of Leo Kopernick (Oscar winner Adrien Brody), which occurred in the theater during the cast party. Kopernick, an abrasive American director, was in talks to create a film version of the play.

Assisting Stoppard with the investigation is rookie Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan), who writes every detail in her notepad, and is overly quick to name the killer in her eagerness to solve the case. Rockwell chooses a laconic, prosaic approach for his Inspector Stoppard to contrast mightily with Ronan’s overzealous Constable Stalker. We are treated to two terrific actors playing off each other. Unfortunately, the screenplay and overall movie simply doesn’t deserve these two … or the balance of the talented cast which includes Ruth Wilson, an unusually flamboyant David Oyelowo, and the always great (and criminally underappreciated) Shirley Henderson.

With the recent success and popularity of Rian Johnson’s KNIVES OUT (2019), it’s perfectly understandable why producers and movie studios would want to capitalize on the newly discovered beauty of whodunnits, but there is a distinct line drawn between effective murder mysteries (whether dramatic or comedic) and those that offer no real punch or tension. The theater makes a grand setting, and the well-choreographed hallway scene provides a dash of fun, but overall this one is just too flat to recommend.

Opens in theaters on September 16, 2022

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THE SILENT TWINS (2022)

September 16, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Twins often have their own language or way of communicating. However, sisters June and Jennifer Gibbons of Wales took this to a new level, creating a mysterious dark connection that no one else every understood. Andrea Siegel has adapted the screenplay from Marjorie Wallace’s book, and Polish director Agnieszka Smoczynska (THE LURE 2015) delivers the style and creep factor, while missing out on answering the questions raised with the story.

The young sisters are seen giving a fake radio broadcast, and we get a glimpse of their awkward behavior during childhood … behavior that left their parents and siblings feeling helpless. Letitia Wright (BLACK PANTHER, 2018) and Tamara Lawrance (KINDRED, 2020) take over as teenage June and Jennifer, respectively. While the young ones are well cast, it’s the work of Ms. Wright and Ms. Lawrance that keep this one watchable despite the meandering. The awkward behavior of adolescents evolves into bizarre behavior of teens, and ultimately criminal behavior and some type of mental illness.

Pure elation of a new typewriter is all too quickly erased by irritation and anger that leads to fighting, or worse. Director Smoczynska does well to use stop motion animation periodically in helping to explain what’s happening with the two girls. Child psychologists have no luck breaking through and the sisters are ultimately separated and locked away at Broadmoor psychiatric hospital by age 19. By this time, it’s difficult not to view them as psychopaths.

It’s interesting to watch as these two survive on the fringes of society in near mental isolation, and use writing as a creative outlet to unleash their inner thoughts. We never really know if we should have empathy for the girls, and that becomes even more difficult given their later behavior. Journalist Marjorie Wallace (played here by Jodhi May) documented her interactions with the sisters, but we can’t help but wonder if this story is better told in documentary form – despite the strong work from Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance.

Opens in theaters on September 16, 2022

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