HALLELUJAH: LEONARD COHEN, A JOURNEY, A SONG (2022, doc)

July 1, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. He’s not an easy man to figure out. His many written and spoken words can be challenging to interpret, and his art comes in many forms: poems, novels, drawings, and songs. Leonard Cohen was an enigma, yet also a treasure trove of thought-provoking work crafted over fifty years. Collaborators for more than 25 years, documentarians Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine knew tackling Cohen as a subject would be too much, so by taking inspiration from Alan Light’s book, “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah’”, they were able to approach him through his most recognizable and most oft-covered song, “Hallelujah.” The result is a captivating two hours that will appeal to Leonard Cohen devotees and enlighten those new to his work.

We open on December 21, 2013 in Auckland, New Zealand. Leonard Cohen is on stage and sings the immediately recognizable first “secret chord” line of “Hallelujah.” This would be his final live performance. Someone offers the description of LC as “a spiritual seeker”, and that appears to have been the case most of his life. Perhaps there is no better evidence of this than his pursuit of writing lyrics to “Hallelujah.” We see the dozens of notebooks filled with his handwritten lyrics. We know there are multiple versions of the song, and Leonard admits the song was never finished … it was ever-evolving, same as the writer. Although Cohen passed away in 2016 and was not interviewed for this film, precious archival footage allows us to see him expressing his own thoughts alongside new and recorded interviews of those who knew him for so long.

The great Judy Collins tells of the time she encouraged Leonard to come on stage and sing his song “Suzanne” with her. It was 1966 and though to that point, he had been mostly a poet, he now immersed himself and his words into songwriting. In regards to his poetry, so many believe one must suffer to have anything of value to say; however, Leonard was born into a wealthy family, and he created reems of meaningful passages as a deep thinker and observer. Other terrific interviews come courtesy of music journalist “Ratso” Sloman (who also shared tapes of his own Leonard interviews with the filmmakers), long time back-up singer and co-writer Sharon Robinson, Cohen’s former girlfriend and renowned photographer Dominique Isserman, lifelong friend and fellow Canadian Nancy Bacal, Canadian journalist and lifelong friend Adrienne Clarkson, and John Lissauer who first produced “Hallelujah” and also composed the score to this documentary.

The song itself took a journey worth exploring. Leonard initially worked on the lyrics for years. Once the song was recorded, it (and the entire album, ‘Various Positions’) was rejected by Columbia, the record label that had already paid for it. The album and song were finally released on a small independent label. Ultimately, Bob Dylan began performing the song in concert, and it was gradually adopted by other artists, and reached mainstream status when it was included in the animated hit movie, SHREK. How is that for an unusual journey for a song?

Even the SHREK saga wasn’t straightforward. Rather than use Cohen’s version of the song, the director chose the version sung by Rufus Wainwright, but then decided it didn’t fit, and shifted to the John Cale version. As a final twist, it’s Wainwright’s version on the released movie soundtrack. It’s not just the lyrics that have multiple versions. As of last count, more than 200 artists have their own version, with those of John Cale and Jeff Buckley being the most frequently listened to. Both get their due in this documentary, and it’s quite moving to compare the different approaches … one’s mood must be the determining factor on which fits the moment, as it’s impossible to say one is “better” than the other. We also hear from other artists who testify to the song’s personal importance to them. And to reinforce the point of how the song has become part of the fabric of society, there is a montage of TV contestants singing their version in hopes of moving on to the next stage.

Although the filmmakers use “Hallelujah” as the structural force for this film, they expertly weave in Leonard Cohen’s personal history throughout. They remind us that his early song “Suzanne” was written well before he met and married Suzanne Elrod. We hear a bit from the cringe-inducing partnership with producer Phil Spector for one album. The filmmakers highlight Cohen’s 1993 decision to isolate at the Mount Baldy Zen Center through 1999, before returning ‘back down the hill’ to write more songs. It was in 2005 when Cohen discovered that his long time manager had bilked him out of his earnings and assets. This sent Leonard back on tour for the first time in 15 years … he performed 379 shows over 5 years, thrilling his fans and introducing many new ones to his music.

There have been other documents focusing on Leonard Cohen, most notably, LEONARD COHEN: I’M YOUR MAN (2005), and MARIANNE & LEONARD: WORDS OF LOVE (2019). Both have their merits, yet neither capture the remarkable story of this ‘spiritual seeker’ as thoroughly as this one. He was an unusual and remarkable man who wrote, “I did my best. It wasn’t much.” Maybe the only false words he ever penned.

Opens in theaters beginning July 1, 2022

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THE FORGIVEN (2022)

June 30, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Writer-director John Michael McDonagh (older brother of Oscar winner Martin McDonagh) has delivered a couple of fine movies in the past: CALVARY (2014) and THE GUARD (2011), and he’s never been one to shy away from controversial characters or topics. This time, he has adapted the 2012 novel from British writer Lawrence Osborne, and in this process, has continued his fascination with the all-too-human dark nature of some folks. Somewhat surprisingly, most of this is so obvious and blatant, only those who prefer thoughts be spoon-fed will appreciate the lack of subtlety.

Married couple David Henninger (Ralph Fiennes) and Jo (Oscar winner Jessica Chastain) are en route to a lavish party, and before the opening credits have ended, the depth of their strained relationship is crystal clear. David is a doctor who takes as a compliment his wife’s description of him as a “highly functioning alcoholic”, while she, a former writer, mostly seems along for the ride. We presume this couple of convenience has reached the point where remaining together is merely easier than the break that seems appropriate. After drinking entirely too much, David rents a car in Morocco and the couple heads out for a nighttime drive through the Sahara. While arguing about whether they are lost, an inebriated David runs over a local boy. Where previously we found the couple insufferable, a line of morality is crossed and they load the boy in the car and continue onward for a late arrival to the party.

The party at the stunning desert villa is hosted by Richard (an always terrific Matt Smith) and his partner Dally (an always strange and interesting Caleb Landry Jones). The entitlement shown by the privileged (and of course morally reprehensible) party people is contrasted with the quiet dignity of the staff of Muslim locals, including the head of staff, Hamid (Mourad Zaoui). Richard and Dally are most concerned about how the young boy’s corpse will disrupt the party, while David seems more bitter than usual at how a poor local boy could inconvenience him.

Although the police rule this an accident, the tone shifts quickly when the boy’s father (Ismael Kanater) shows up to collect his son’s body. By claiming local custom, he coerces David to ride back to the village with him for the burial and service. It’s here where the movie splits into two pieces. On one hand, we see David accompanying the man who holds him responsible for his son’s death, while simultaneously, the party-goers are reveling in debauchery. The clash of cultures is evident not just in the sparse home of the boy’s father when compared to the party’s resort, but also in the decadence of the party people when compared to the grieving and emotional father. Standouts at the shindig include a wild party girl (Abbey Lee) who seems constantly inebriated, yet never hungover, and Tom (Christopher Abbott), “the American” whose heavy flirtatious exchanges with Jo lead to booze and alcohol, and those carnal activities that follow such behavior.

We get why the bored younger wife takes advantage of temporary freedom and opportunity to cut loose, and Ms. Chastain (as always) is tremendous and believable. However, it’s David’s trip with the boy’s father that holds the real potential in taking this film to the next level. Fiennes nails the grumpy, rich guy role, and his interaction with the father and, especially, with Anouar (Said Taghmaoui), the father’s friend, that provide the tension and true emotion. Previous McDonagh collaborator Larry Smith provides the rich and awe-inspiring cinematography, and the cast performs admirably … even those portraying “useless people”. It’s difficult to explain why the movie isn’t better than it is, although it is plenty watchable.

Opening in theaters on June 30, 2022

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MR. MALCOLM’S LIST (2022)

June 30, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. At this point, I believe it’s fair to say we have a Jane Austen sub-genre for film, TV, and books. After all, it’s been more than 200 years, and her novels have remained in print, have also been adapted too many times to count, and inspired countless writers and filmmakers to follow in her footsteps. The success of the “Bridgerton” series is a testament to the Jane Austen realm, despite being adapted from the novels of Julia Quinn. For this first feature film from director Emma Holly Jones, Suzanne Allain has adapted the screenplay from her own novel, and interestingly, this is a feature length version of Ms. Jones’ 2019 short film, with most of the cast and crew returning.

The film opens in 1802 England as youngsters Julia and Selina solidify their BFF bond. Flashing forward to a majestic castle in 1818, we find it’s mating season for high society, and Julia (Zawe Ashton) has her sights set on the catch-of-the-year, Mr. Jeremy Malcolm (Sope Dirisu). Their first date to the opera tells Malcolm everything he needs to know to rule out Julia as a prospective match. Her ignorance on current affairs and overall personality prevent any type of love connection. Though her feelings are hurt at the rejection, Julia likely would have moved on if not for a public humiliation related to the date, but not caused by Malcolm. When Julia discloses her embarrassment to her cousin, Lord Cassidy (an excellent Oliver Jackson-Cohen), he confides that Malcolm has crafted a list of requirements for his future bride. Instantly, Julia begins scheming to turn the tables of ‘humiliation’ on Malcolm, hoping to regain her reputation … one tarnished by four previous seasons without a match.

Julia’s scheme requires two co-conspirators. Lord Cassidy has already been bullied into the ring, and next up is her childhood friend, Selina (Freida Pinto). Selina is of a lower class than Julia, and against her better judgement (and sweet demeanor) agrees to the plan: playing the role of the perfect match for Malcolm before humiliating him by exposing his ‘list’. Of course, anyone who has ever watched a movie or read a book knows where this is headed … and that’s exactly where it goes. Selina and Malcolm do prove to be a good match, and she is overwhelmed by guilt.

Like Mr. Malcolm, I have a list … only my list is for the issues I have with the film:

  1. Julia is neither smart nor nice, and would be a poor match for most men
  2. Her plot for revenge proves her mean streak, as Malcolm never publicly humiliated her
  3. Malcolm has good looks and lots of money, but otherwise doesn’t seem like much fun
  4. Selina is smart, but we never see why she falls for Malcolm – other than his looks and money
  5. Selina seems too nice to ever go along with Julia’s devious plan against a guy who did nothing wrong
  6. The twist with Captain Henry Ossory is totally unbelievable and fabricated strictly for a happy ending
  7. The cast diversity plays like a gimmick and totally ignores genetics. There are more legitimate ways to achieve diversity

My list is longer than Mr. Malcolm’s, but you get the point on why the film didn’t work for me. Julia is unlucky in love because she is not likable, and Mr. Malcolm is a bit dull, and is only a “catch” because of looks and money. We never care about either of these characters. And shouldn’t everyone have a ‘list’ of characteristics they desire in a mate? It’s probably for all these reasons that I found the movie uncomfortable to watch and entirely too long. That said, the cast is superb and the performances are admirable in spite the issues I have with the script and story. Many viewers will likely ignore what bugged me here, and I contend the best of the recent entries in this genre continues to be EMMA. (2020)

Opens in theaters on July 1, 2022

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GREEN GHOST AND THE MASTERS OF STONE (2022)

June 30, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Next up in this prime era for Superheroes comes “Green Ghost”, a struggling south Texas car dealer who moonlights as a Lucha Libre wrestler with untapped mystical powers linked to the Mayan Apocalypse! Does that sound preposterous? Sure it does. But really, is it any more ridiculous than Thanos’ Infinity Gauntlet? With an overall budget that was likely less than that AVENGERS powerful glove prop, writer-director Michael D Olmos and co-writers Charlie Clark and Brian Douglas deliver their version of a gently comical, semi-serious genre film saturated with martial arts moments and finding meaning in life. While certainly no cinematic masterpiece, what’s obvious about the film is that it was a labor of love … a true passion project.

Charlie Clark stars as Charlie Clark, aka “Gringo”, aka “Green Ghost” (the latter two make for an easy to decipher play on words). The real Charlie Clark is a car dealer in Brownsville, Texas. He’s also the star, producer, and co-writer of this project, so obviously it is very personal to him. This movie is not meant to be compared to big budget productions. In fact, it feels more like a bucket list item for Mr. Clark, and he was fortunate enough and committed enough to fulfill his own wish of making a movie (very) loosely based on his life. In real life, Clark was raised in the Mexican culture by his Nana … photos are shown over the closing credits. This plays as a tribute to her and his upbringing.

In the film, Charlie’s dealership is floundering, mostly because he’s quick to shirk his duties and head to the latest underground wresting match for his adoptive brother, Marco (Kuno Becker). Charlie supports Marco by donning his Green Ghost spandex costume – one that the crowd loves to jeer, and that causes fellow wrestlers to cringe. At a very high level (and low bar), the story involves a plan by evil forces led by Drake (Marko Zarar), the son of Nana’s sister, to obtain the magical and mystical emerald and rule humanity. The defenders of humanity are the trio nicknamed, El Trio de la Luz, and it consists of Marco, his sister Karina (Sofia Pernas), and to his surprise, Charlie. The group’s leader is Nana (screen veteran Renee Victor, who voiced Abuelita in COCO). To prepare for battle, Nana arranges a training program featuring Master Kane (MMA fighter Cain Velasquez), Master Hung (renowned stunt coordinator Andy Chang, “Rush Hour” films), and, best of all, Master Gin, played by the always great Danny Trejo … who even gets a “Machete” punchline. A “Rocky” montage technique is utilized, replete with a Spanish version of “Eye of the Tiger” performed by (director) Robert Rodriguez’s band.

An inordinately high percentage of scenes involve martial arts fighting, and some of the stunt work is much better than we’d expect. And then there are the moments that are meant to ensure we understand the filmmakers are in on the joke … like the flinging of tortillas, and a protective force field negated by fancy eyewear. We are never really sure how all of the mystical powers fit together, but the issue of corruption by power is pretty obvious, even within a family. The film’s best line is, “Every family’s not perfect, Charlie. Sometimes, we just have to make our own.” While watching, a few other films came to mind. This includes Tommy Wiseau’s THE ROOM, and Jack Black’s NACHO LIBRE. Perhaps that will help you find the right mindset for this one.


available VOD beginning June 28, 2022

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ELVIS (2022)

June 23, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. I’m one who grew up spinning my mother’s Elvis 45s and LPs for hours on end. Long before I ever saw one of his movies, I had memorized and mimicked the vocals and stylings of his early recordings. For me, the love of his music was ingrained before any understanding of the cultural influence and impact that had occurred years prior. This background undoubtedly played a significant role in my enjoyment of this film. Many will find bashing this movie to be easy and justified, and I do understand. There are those who view Elvis Presley as little more than a punchline – a drug addicted fat guy chomping on peanut butter and banana sandwiches and forgetting lyrics on stage. Then there are those who view writer-director Baz Luhrmann (THE GREAT GATSBY, MOULIN ROUGE) as a cinematic trickster more committed to flashy visuals than facts and story. For me, the visuals and music of this spectacle were driven by a fully committed actor and a filmmaker serving up a tribute to a cultural icon.

Luhrmann co-wrote the script with Sam Bromell and Craig Pearce (a frequent Luhrman collaborator), and their approach seems three-pronged: the background history and influences of Elvis’ music, the “caught-in-a-trap” life he led, and the force that was Colonel Tom Parker (Elvis’ manager). In fact, much of the story is told from the tainted perspective of an elderly Parker, who is in poor health and near death. In Parker’s mind, he is the ‘hero’ who delivered Elvis to the world, and not the evil huckster who rode his meal-ticket into the ground, while severely limiting artistic opportunities like serious movie roles and international tours.

Playing Colonel Tom Parker, buried beneath a fat suit and facial prosthetics, is Oscar winner Tom Hanks. Further distractions come courtesy of the accent, which is actually pretty close to Parker’s speech pattern. We see Parker’s carnival background and hustler mentality, and watch as he first drools over Elvis along with the teenage girls in the Louisiana Hayride audience … although while the girls enjoy the sexuality, Parker sees nothing but dollar signs. It’s atop a Ferris wheel that Parker entices Elvis with dreams of stardom and wish fulfillment. Elvis is played by Austin Butler (Tex Watson in Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME … IN HOLLYWOOD), and Butler perfectly captures Elvis’ early innocence and naivety, as well as the immense physicality of those early stage performances that sent girls (and some boys) into a tizzy.

Luhrmann takes us back to Presley’s childhood in poverty while living in Tupelo, Mississippi, and it’s here as a young boy wearing a Captain Marvel Jr logo (played by Chaydon Jay) where he is first moved by the gospel music from inside the black church. In fact, Luhrmann makes a point throughout the film to connect Elvis to the music roots of blacks – gospel, blues, R&B. He later befriends BB King (Kelvin Harrison Jr), and is awed by Little Richard (Alton Mason), Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh), and a stunning Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola). This is crucial as Luhrmann is aware of the ’cultural appropriation’ talk associated with Elvis these days, and how the singer absorbed the music that moved him and presented it to the wider audiences that had been previously untouchable by black artists. The influences are beyond debate just as the opening of doors was welcome.

Elvis’ path from Beale Street to Sun Records to RCA is tracked. The Sam Phillips and Sun Records connection is shown only briefly, but Phillips (Josh McConville) is acknowledged for releasing Elvis (driving his Crown Electric truck) so that he could sign with Parker. It was a remarkably standup thing to do and a familiar situation that has resulted in many court battles over the years for other artists and agents. We get a glimpse at Elvis’ extremely close bond with his mother Gladys (Helen Thompson), whose faith and heavy drinking are both on display. We can see the pride Elvis carries as he shows her Graceland for the first time. Richard Roxburgh plays Elvis’ father Vernon, and as time goes on, he’s not portrayed in a flattering light – seemingly more interested in money than in doing right by his son.

Elvis enlisting in the Army is viewed as a necessary public relations step due to the outcry from religious conservatives over his onstage movements clearly sponsored by the devil himself. We see one scene of Elvis courting Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), but she’s only described as a teenager, so Luhrmann has chosen to gloss over the age difference and the unusual circumstances of those years between meeting and marrying. Also receiving the ‘glossed over’ treatment is Elvis’ movie career. It’s handled via montage with Austin Butler’s face superimposed into actual clips of the films. Another element that the film quickly skips through is the “Memphis Mafia”, Elvis’ entourage of assistants and hangers-on. They are mostly shown here as background characters, and some of these guys went on to write ‘tell-all’ books to line their pockets after Elvis died. It turns out the Elvis’ loyalty to them was not reciprocated once the gravy train ended.

Colonel Tom Parker was neither a Colonel nor a Parker. He was born Andreas van Kujik in The Netherlands and emigrated to the United States in order to pursue the American Dream and boat loads of gambling debt. Supposedly he treated Elvis pretty well, but it’s frustrating to know that so many business decisions were based on Parker’s personal needs rather than Elvis’ artistic development. As you would expect, Tom Hanks handles the role of ‘villain’ and Snowman quite well.

Austin Butler portrays Elvis from the early 1950’s to the mid-1970’s. It’s a terrific performance and one worthy of great admiration. Butler immersed himself in Elvis and it shows, perhaps never better than the infamous 1968 Comeback special. Black leather in the round, rocking to his hits, was a smash in TV ratings, and re-established Elvis as the star he was. The special also features Elvis in white suit belting out “If I Can Dream”, and Butler nails the emotion-filled performance. I consider this (Elvis’ actual song) one of the all-time most memorable rock/pop moments alongside Bill Haley and the Comets releasing “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” (1954), Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” (1955), Bob Dylan going electric at Newport Folk Festival (1965), Sinatra singing “My Way” (1969), Hendrix at Woodstock (1969), Live Aid (1985), and Kurt Cobain/Nirvana unplugged on MTV (1994).

We go behind the scenes for the dealings that brought Elvis and his new big band approach to the International Hotel (now The Hilton) in Las Vegas. Once again, Butler is spot on during the stage performances, and this brings the musical catalog full circle. Elvis’ musical roots and that early fascination never left him – regardless of whether it was his early trio, or the orchestra in Vegas. Despite the extended run time of 2:49, Luhrmann had to make some tough choices on what to include and what to omit. In a career that spanned less than 25 years, Elvis recorded more than 700 songs … none with the help of Auto-Tune. His amazing voice could be smooth, soulful, playful, or powerful, depending on the song – even at the end. We see one of his final stage performances (with Butler’s face superimposed over the clip) recorded a mere two months before his death in 1977. With guitarist Charlie Hodge holding the microphone, a bloated and drug-addicted Elvis delivered a most memorable rendition of “Unchained Melody”. He would soon be dead at age 42.

Baz Luhrmann and Austin Butler have provided a dazzling look at a remarkable career that changed the music industry and society. The film is quite a visual and musical and historical treat. We have grown so accustomed to reveling in the “bad” side of celebrities, that a celebration of one might seem trite to some. However, fans will enjoy most of this, despite the constant feeling that Elvis was trapped and lived with an underlying sadness for so many years. Elvis may have left the building, but Baz Luhrmann, Austin Butler, and the musical legacy continue ‘Taking Care of Business in a Flash.”

The film opens in theaters on June 24, 2022

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LIGHTYEAR (2022)

June 16, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. At the beginning of the film we are informed that this is a movie about the story that made Andy want a Buzz Lightyear action figure in the first TOY STORY (1995). It’s fair to ask – is this a spin-off, a prequel, or an origin story? The answer is a dash of all the above, yet also not exactly any of those. As with all Pixar features, the pedigree is beyond reproach. Writer-director Angus MacLane was the co-director on FINDING DORY (2016), while his co-writer here was Jason Headley (ONWARD, 2020), and the story was developed by Matthew Aldrich (COCO, 2017).

Following the murkiness of the prologue … he looks like Buzz and acts like Buzz, but that’s Chris Evans (CAPTAIN AMERICA), not the familiar voice of Tim Allen, as Buzz Lightyear filing his Mission Log to Star Command. We adjust quickly enough, although it is a bit jarring at first. Buzz is headstrong and not always the best at following orders. It’s that mentality and an error in judgment that results in those on the mission becoming stranded on a distant planet. Time and space theories are likely to baffle the younger viewers, as the various test flights Buzz takes finds him basically maintaining his current age, while those from the original mission age and ultimately die. This includes his mentor and friend Commander Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), whom, with each of his return flights, Buzz watches her age, marry a woman, have kids, and get sick. Again, it’s kind of jarring, but Pixar has never shied away from life’s tough moments, and that don’t do so here.

It’s on his return from one unexplained extra-long flight when Buzz encounters Izzy Hawthorne (Keke Palmer), granddaughter of Alisha. Izzy is trying to follow in her grandmother’s Space Ranger footsteps, and with her rag-tag band of misfits, Mo (Taika Waititi) and Darby Steele (Dale Soules), they help Buzz avoid his first encounter with the evil Emperor Zurg (James Brolin). Completing this new group is SOX (Peter Sohn), the robot cat previously issued to Buzz for emotional comfort. SOX is the latest in a long line of scene-stealing Disney fur-baby sidekicks, even if SOX happens to be mechanical. SOX is also the best thing about the film, other than the spectacular visuals and the late-in-the-story appearance of Commander Burnside, whose instantly recognizable voice belongs to Isiah Whitlock Jr (and no, the colorful word Mr. Whitlock has made his own in so many roles does not appear here, to no one’s surprise).

No voice by John Ratzenberger (at least that I heard) and no Pizza Planet (at least that I spotted), but more importantly, the film simply lacks the charm and story-telling brilliance that Pixar has spoiled us with over the years. We never really connect with the characters, even Buzz, who seems quite aloof. Michael Giacchino does serve up another terrific score on the heels of his work on THE BATMAN and JURASSIC PARK DOMINION, and the visual effects really are top notch. Pixar films consistently deliver a message and here it seems to be that collaboration and friendship create strength in numbers. LIGHTYEAR doesn’t go to infinity and beyond, but even the lesser Pixar projects have something to offer.

***NOTE: TOY STORY is one of my all-time favorite movies

Opens in theaters on June 17, 2022

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OFFICIAL COMPETITION (2022, Spain)

June 16, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Satire is one of the most challenging cinematic genres to get right. The script and performances are crucial, and the director must walk a fine line between too subtle and over-the-top. The long-time collaborative filmmaking team of co-writers and co-directors Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat, along with co-writer Andres Duprat, strike just the right chord and deliver a gem that is funny, insightful, and quite entertaining. The film was well received at last year’s Venice Film Festival, but is only now getting distribution.

We open on Don Umberto Suarez (Jose Luis Gomez), a wealthy pharmaceutical businessman, as he peruses the many gifts that have arrived for his 80th birthday. He’s in a reflective mood and wonders what he can do to secure his legacy so as not to be forgotten. Suarez debates between building a bridge or financing a “great” movie, one that will stand the test of time. He knows nothing of the film industry, and doesn’t bother to read the best-seller book he secures the rights to. He then meets with eccentric film director Lola Cuevas (Oscar winner Penelope Cruz, VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, 2008), yet seems oblivious to what we see – her vision runs contrary to his, as evidenced by her production notebook that looks like a teenager’s scrapbook from summer camp. She buys in to his “best cast” demands and leaves him believing “his” film is in good hands.

Ms. Cruz is so perfect in this role that even her giant frizzy flame-red wig is simpatico with director Lola’s intense personality as an auteur. Things really take off when rehearsal begins and her two lead actors arrive. Antonio Banderas plays Felix Rivero, a global movie star who lives the rock star life with women and sports cars. He’s the personality antithesis of his co-star Ivan Torres, played by Oscar Martinez, a self-absorbed stage actor who views his world as prestigious, while mocking the glitz, glamor, and money that rules Felix’s world. An architecturally stunning art institute funded by Suarez serves as the rehearsal site, since it sits empty and unused.

Felix and Ivan are to play rival brothers, and the tension that develops between the two men is hilarious … and further spurred by Lola’s acting exercises. She prods Ivan on the simple line, “Good evening”, forcing him to repeat it multiple times, just as she toys with Felix on his level of intoxication (a range of 1 to 10). To increase the tension, Lola has the men rehearse underneath a giant boulder dangling overhead by crane. As the two actors battle it out for respect from the other and favoritism from Lola, the humor escalates at the same pace as egos are wounded. After scoffing at the mention of Felix’s awards, Ivan secretly practices his Oscar-acceptance speech in his dressing room. It becomes clear that each of the men want what the other has: Felix wants prestige, while Ivan wants recognition.

There are so many terrific scenes and moments here, including a foreshadowed twist and a sequence that combines industry awards, an industrial shredder, and the strength of Saran Wrap. All three lead actors are having a blast, and the supporting cast lends authenticity to this skewering of wealth, ego, art, and the film industry. Especially effective in support are Irene Escolar as Suarez’s daughter who has been cast in the film, and Pilar Castro as Violetta, Ivan’s equally pretentious wife. This is satire at it’s finest, and the filmmakers (and Ms. Cruz) even nail the ending. Kudos to one of my favorite movies of the year.

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GOOD LUCK TO YOU, LEO GRANDE (2022)

June 16, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Normally when we see a movie where the focus is almost entirely on two characters conversing while in one room, we expect it to feel like something better served in live theater. But director Sophie Hyde does succeed in keeping it cinematic, despite the dialogue-centric script from writer Katy Brand and a setting that is 95 percent within the confines of a single hotel room. An extraordinary performance from two-time Oscar winner Emma Thompson and solid complimentary work from Daryl McCormack keep us interested in the characters.

Nancy Stokes (Ms. Thompson) is a middle-aged woman fidgeting in a hotel room when Leo Grande (Mr. McCormack) knocks on her door and asks if he may kiss her on the cheek. It turns out Nancy is two years a widow and has hired sex worker Leo to assist with knocking a few things off her to-do list of unfulfilled intimate activities. See, Nancy has only ever had sex with her husband, and now she longs to feel young and excited again, and hopes this pay-for-it adventure will scratch that itch in just the right way.

Their initial meeting is fascinating to watch. Nancy, a former religious studies teacher, is a planner, list-maker, and steps-follower. She’s also filled with nervous energy and a bit embarrassed by the situation … clearly wanting to move forward, while trying to convince herself she doesn’t really want it. On the other side of this would-be tryst, Leo is the master of calm demeanor and smooth talk. He’s a professional who takes pride in the “service” he provides, and he recognizes what to say (and when) to try and put Nancy at ease. It’s clearly not his first rodeo. In this initial meeting, Nancy and Leo literally dance around the sex, and instead focus on conversation. She wants to know all about him, while he just wants to the job he was hired for.

Subsequent meetings (jobs, hook-ups, trysts?) between the two occur in the same room at The Duffield Hotel, and Nancy continues to poke the personal boundaries that Leo tries to uphold. As happens with human nature, barriers begin to break down. This intrusion changes the dynamics and causes quite the mood shift as personal lives and relationships open wounds that are probably best left to a situation where one hasn’t contracted for the sexual services of another.

Most of the dialogue seems believable and true to the characters, and Ms. Thompson does much of the heavy lifting. The only exceptions to this would be Nancy offering to talk to Leo’s mother (What the heck? That’s ridiculous even for a former teacher.), and when Nancy recalls asking her class about the impact of pay-for-sex … a discussion that seems a bit too on point for the film. A truly annoying song plays over the opening credits, but later an Alabama Shakes song plays with perfect timing. When Nancy’s real name is revealed, that too produces a cringe, but mostly we are reminded that the perfect fantasy sex partner will always be just that – a fantasy. Ms. Hyde’s film leaves us with this thought … will “empirically sexy” become the go-to compliment for romantic partners?

Opens in theaters on June 17, 2022

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SPIDERHEAD (2022)

June 16, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. “We are changing the world!” These days, those words tend to be more chilling than hopeful. More cautionary than exciting. Spoken a few times by scientist Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), those words have long ago lost the intended impact with his assistant Mark (Mark Paguio).

Steve is the warden of a high-tech experimental prison where the convicts have agreed to participate in drug studies in exchange for a relaxed/comfortable environment and the hope of early release. In fact, these folks are guinea pigs for mind-altering drugs controlled through a surgically attached mechanism on their lower back. We recognize that Steve is smart because he wears wire-rimmed glasses, and we recognize his villainous intent because of his smarmy nature and impossible to trust false charm.

Much of the focus here is on Jeff (the very talented Miles Teller) who is serving time due to his responsibility in a tragic car accident. Steve tests each of the drugs on Jeff, and each test requires Jeff to “acknowledge” his consent … as if it’s his choice to see what happens with the next round of mind-bending. The drugs have hilariously descriptive names: “Verbaluce” forces one to speak their mind, “Phobica” causes paranoia and fear, “Laffodil” generates uncontrollable laughter, and “Luvactin” … well, you get the idea.

Beyond the drugs, Jeff finds a soulmate in Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett) and ultimately, Steve pits the two against each other in order to elevate the drug testing and human behavior to extreme levels. The film carries a science fiction label, but mind-altering drugs are as much a part of the past and present as they are the future. Any promise shown in the early stages of the film have long evaporated by the insipid final act that pits Jeff and Lizzy against Steve and the other convicts.

The basis for the film is a George Saunders short story originally published in The New Yorker entitled, “Escape from Spiderhead”. It has been adapted for the screen by DEADPOOL and ZOMBIELAND co-writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. Unfortunately, the wit and cleverness of those two films is never flashed here … except for the use of Thomas Dolby’s song, “She Blinded Me with Science.” Other late 70’s and 80’s songs provide only cringing, as they weren’t even that enjoyable at their peak. The director of this film, Joseph Kosinski, is riding high right now with his “other” film currently setting box office records. Perhaps you’ve heard of it: TOP GUN: MAVERICK. It’s unusual for a director to have two films out simultaneously, but the pandemic has caused quite a few oddities. I will “acknowledge” that the execution of this story is quite disappointing.

Releases globally on Netflix beginning June 17, 2022

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THE PHANTOM OF THE OPEN (2022)

June 16, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Scott Farnaby co-wrote the book with Scott Murray and then adapted that book into the screenplay directed here by Craig Roberts (ETERNAL BEAUTY, 2019). Mr. Farnaby also wrote the excellent screenplay for PADDINGTON 2 (2017), as well as for the upcoming Disney version of PINOCCHIO. Director Roberts is also known for his acting, taking the lead in the underrated SUBMARINE (2010).

We are informed that this is based on the true story of Maurice Flitcroft, a name you likely don’t recognize. Flitcroft (played here by Oscar winner Mark Rylance, BRIDGE OF SPIES) is known for posting the highest score in history at the 1976 British Open. He shot 121. It was the first round of golf he ever played. Now if you wonder how that could happen, the filmmakers are happy to explain. We meet Flitcroft as an unassuming crane operator at the shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness, a workplace he describes as “going in on your feet, and out in a box.” This is also where he meets and subsequently marries an unassuming secretary, and single mom, named Jean (played by the always great Sally Hawkins). The two marry and have twin sons to join Jean’s son, Michael.

There is really no need to dig in deep here as it’s a light-hearted, dry comedy based on an accidental celebrity who gained folk hero status over pursuing his dream … in a clueless and talentless manner. The big question remains: was Flitcroft a naïve man whose dream was inspired by watching a few holes of golf on TV, or was he a sly huckster who took a bit of enjoyment in sticking it to the system? Rylance gives the least subtle performance of his career as he dons a bucket hat and some protruding false teeth to create an exaggerated overbite that is as much of his character as the quirky facial expressions and down-to-earth philosophy he spews: “Practice is the road to perfection.”

Christian Lees and Jonah Lees appear as Maurice’s and Jean’s disco-dancing twins (and sometimes caddy), while Jake Davis stars as Michael, their more career-minded son. It’s an under-utilized Rhys Ifans who takes on the main villain role as the director of the British Open, and the man responsible for exposing and banning Flitcroft. Ash Tandon plays Lloyd Donovan, the journalist who sniffs out the Flitcroft story and actually follows through (like journalists once did) … even ten years later when the Flitcroft family is invited to the U.S. for the annual Maurice Flitcroft tournament, where the high score wins.

Isobel Waller-Bridge (EMMA., big sister to Phoebe of “Fleabag” fame) composed the score, and we do get archival footage of Maurice and family over the end credits. Perhaps EDDIE THE EAGLE (2015) is the best comparison for this film, as Flitcroft bore the label, “the worst golfer in the world” … something he vehemently denied. Maurice did manage to inspire others to follow their dreams, and his six sugars in tea may correspond to the level of saccharine the movie develops as it strives to be this year’s feel-good story – and we all know we need one.

Opens in theaters on June 17, 2022

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