GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY (2022)

November 24, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Of course we do get a murder mystery (maybe even more than one!), yet the real case study may be in how the billionaire tech mogul celebrated for his business savvy and creative genius is actually an egotistical putz who stole one brilliant idea from his former partner. Another mystery is what to say about writer-director Rian Johnson’s (STAR WARS VIII – THE LAST JEDI, 2017) follow up to his superb first KNIVES OUT (2019), without giving away too much. Clearly, Johnson went all-in for the entertainment factor, and it’s a sure bet that most will find a good amount of joy watching this.

The traditional introduction of characters and suspects is handled through the arrival of seemingly impenetrable wooden boxes delivered to the five friends of the above-referenced billionaire Miles Bron (an overly-hyped Edward Norton). Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson) is a former model clueless to the ways of ‘woke’ society, blocked from social media by her assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick). Duke Cody (Dave Bautista) is a pistol-packing testosterone-fueled Twitch influencer who hangs with his girlfriend Whiskey (Madeline Kline). Claire Debella (an underutilized Kathryn Hahn) is a regretfully-for-sale ambitious politician. Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr) is the genius tech inventor who receives middle-of-the-night faxes from Miles. Lastly, a terrific Janelle Monae plays the former business partner outmaneuvered in a dirty way by Miles.

Each friend solves the intricate puzzles required to open the box, it’s Duke’s ma (Jackie Hoffman) who excels as a puzzle whiz in the most comical manner … well, maybe not as funny as Janelle Monae’s approach. While all the puzzle-solving is occurring, we see super sleuth Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) soaking in his bathtub, wishing for a stimulating case as he Zoom calls with his friends – including Stephen Sondheim, Angela Lansbury, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. This is the first of many high-profile cameos sprinkled throughout, including Ethan Hawke, Hugh Grant, Serena Williams, Natasha Lyonne, and Yo-Yo Ma.

Discovered inside the wooden box is an invitation to a Murder Mystery party at Miles’ lavish private Greek island resort. When they arrive, Miles is baffled by Benoit’s admission that he had received an invitation, as only five were sent. The five friends are referred to as “disruptors”, and though each has been the recipient of Miles’ funding, they also have their own reasons for revenge … these reasons venomously pointed out by Ms. Monae’s character as they lounge around the pool.

Benoit Blanc spoils the murder-mystery party Miles has planned almost before it starts, however, a real murder kicks things into frenetic gear. A humorous complement to Benoit Blanc’s saucy southern accent is Miles’ world-class word butchering – constantly mispronouncing words, making them up, or using them incorrectly (each to the annoyance of Benoit). The overuse of “buttress” is quite the gag, as is the famous portrait hanging in the main hall, and the consumption of caviar. Another ongoing joke is Benoit Blanc’s annoyance at the game of “Clue”, which he terms “a terrible game.”

Despite the many red herrings, McGuffins, and misdirections, we realize what suffers is the actual murder investigation. It’s no surprise that the rich and famous aren’t upstanding citizens, and we see they don’t even make good friends. While the first KNIVES OUT movie focused on the fight for the generational money of Christopher Plummer, director Johnson has this time opted for jabs (stops short of satire) at the nouveau-rich, who are portrayed as entitled, spoiled, and out-of-touch. Johnson made a conscious decision to focus on the comical aspects of society and these characters, and the result is entertainment that feels good in the moment, but leaves us wanting a bit more substance. Still, “Knives Out 3” is expected in a couple of years and we look forward to an even different approach.

Opens in theaters on November 23, 2022 and begins streaming on Netflix December 23, 2022

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BARDO: FALSE CHRONICLES OF A HANDFUL OF TRUTHS (2022)

November 24, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Many filmmakers mine their own lives for projects, making their work personal, revealing, and sometimes invasive. It’s easy to label these works as narcissistic, and by definition, that would be accurate. However, some of the finest films from our most interesting writer-directors fall into the autobiographical (or semi-autobiographical) category. Examples include Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963), Cameron Crowe’s ALMOST FAMOUS, and Woody Allen’s STARDUST MEMORIES. This time it’s Oscar winner Alejandro Inarritu looking inward. Inarritu won his Oscars for THE REVENANT (2015), and his previous nominations include BIRDMAN (2014) and BABEL (2006), and those are in addition to his other standouts: BIUTIFUL (2010), 21 GRAMS (2003), and AMORES PERROS (2000). He’s joined on this project by his BIUTIFUL and BIRDMAN co-writer, Nicolas Giacobone.

The film begins with a Terrence Malick-like dream sequence of a man leaping and flying through the desert as his shadow follows below. Next, we see a woman giving birth in a hospital as her husband lends support. Only this time, the mother and doctor agree that the baby didn’t want to come out, so they put him “back in.” The father is Silverio (Daniel Gimenez Cacho, (BAD EDUCATION 2004, CRONOS 1993), and it’s quite obvious he is representing our real-life director, Mr. Inarritu. A few years later we are informed that Silverio, a respected journalist and documentarian, has become the first Mexican selected for a prestigious award in the United States.

Griselda Siciliani plays Lucia, Silverio’s wife, and she is integral to his life, yet we witness much of his life outside of their relationship. The film struck me as a metaphysical exercise as an artist turns his lens into selfie mode. It seems as though Inarritu is coming to grips … and sharing his philosophy with us … that emotions drive the reality of our truth. Stated another way, truth is an illusion of emotion. Our emotion skews how we view everything. Additionally, he examines (his own) midlife crisis, and the corresponding insecurities, dreams, fantasies, and doubts. And since much of this occurs in his native Mexico, spiritual and cultural aspects enter into what we see, as does the uncertainty of time as an element.

Inarritu and cinematographer Darius Khondji capture some startling imagery, including a sequence on the dance floor, a segment where bodies drop in the street, and a bag of Axolotls being held on the train. Much of the film has a surreal look and feel, but then there are moments that are more emotionally grounded – like the terrific rooftop exchange between Silverio and his friend Luis (Francisco Rubio). In contrast to that heartfelt conversation, there are the moments when Silverio seems to be heard by others without his speaking. “Move your mouth when you speak”, he is told … yet, his thoughts are conveyed.

The use of sound is masterful, and is crucial to numerous scenes. A second watch will allow me to more fully appreciate this aspect. However, at two hours and thirty-nine minutes, Inarritu likely had many thoughts and ideas, and we find ourselves wishing things were a bit tighter on the editing side. Still, while the film may be self-indulgent and ego-driven, it’s also spectacular and stunning filmmaking. There are some slyly comedic touches, and the best may when this Netflix production doesn’t shy away from taking a jab at its competitor, Amazon.

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SHE SAID (2022)

November 18, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Allow me to open with how I fully support the idea of telling (and re-telling) these stories and exposing those behind the many instances of intimidation and abuse that occurs in and around the workplace. Newspaper articles, magazine articles, TV shows, podcasts, books, and movies all find an audience and help educate and enlighten those who might become more attuned to the topic. So, even though most everyone knows the saga of movie mogul and chronic abuser Harvey Weinstein, there is a place for director Maria Schrader’s (I’M YOUR MAN, 2021) film … even as an imprisoned Weinstein continues to face additional charges in various states. Rebecca Lenkiewicz (IDA, 2013) adapted the screenplay from the 2019 book by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey; a book based on their New York Times investigation and series.

Carey Mulligan stars as Megan Twohey, and Zoe Kazan as Jodi Kantor. Twohey is the more veteran and hardline of the two, while Kantor is more sensitive and keyed into the feelings of the victims. We see Twohey working on a Trump story prior to the 2016 election, but Schrader’s film mostly revolves around these two hard-working and focused women researching the Weinstein story, while also making sure we understand the added pressures of being working and career-minded mothers of young children. Some scenes are even shot within the actual New York Times offices, and of course, we get the obligatory exterior building shots as well.

One of the biggest takeaways from this is the continuous challenges reporters face when trying to get sources to go on the record for a sensitive story. Added complexity here comes in the form of Non-Disclosure Agreements, settlements, and hush money. In fact, much of the screen time involves the reporters trying to talk to people who aren’t legally allowed to talk, and to verify just how many instances of “settlements” occurred involving Harvey Weinstein.

Supporting roles are covered by Patricia Clarkson as Rebecca Corbett, Andre Braugher as Dean Baquet, Jennifer Ehle as Laura Madden, Samantha Morton as Zelda Perkins (a terrific scene), and Ashley Judd, who plays herself – the one who kicked this into the headlines. We get the feeling the filmmakers hoped this would be a modern day ALL THE PRESIDENTS’ MEN (1976), though it has more in common with SPOTLIGHT (2015). Where this film struggles is that most of us know the story so there are no ‘aha’ moments, and the best parts are the interviews with those playing the victims … and there simply aren’t enough of those moments. Instead, we see a lot of reporters on the way to investigate, or preparing to report, or taking notes … but the real crux of the story eludes us and we are left wondering if this movie is strong enough given the real life impact of Twohey and Kantor. Kudos to Schrader for never showing Weinstein’s face, but instead focusing on the women.

Opens in theaters November 18, 2022

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THERE THERE (2022)

November 18, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s understandable why we ended up with so many Pandemic-based movies. Writers need to write. Actors need to perform. Filmmakers need to make movies. Even the trickery can be accepted given the unusual circumstances. With his latest, writer-director Andrew Bujalski, the father of Mumblecore, delivers an unusual ensemble piece – one where the actors share scenes, but not the set.

The opening sequence is easily the film’s best and most interesting. Lili Taylor and Lennie James awaken in the afterglow of their first hook-up. Things obviously went well … and plenty far … and now two grown-ups are trying to figure out the next step. He seems to be upbeat and optimistic about their spending more time together, while she sports her battle wounds by assuming things won’t work out … going so far to ‘joke’ about him murdering her. With very little effort, it’s obvious to see the two actors are not in the same room despite the cleverly edited shots blended to pretend otherwise. The interaction between the two characters says much about ‘no-longer-youngsters’ and their attitude towards new relationships.

It’s in the next scene where we begin to catch on to Bujalski’s approach. Lili Taylor meets up with her AA sponsor (Annie LaGanga) for some tough love and some awkward conversation. It happens this quickly … the film begins to veer off and leave us wondering about the characters we are meeting. Our fears are solidified in the next sequence when Ms. LaGanga confronts her son’s teacher (Molly Gordon) in what comes across as an inhumane manner. And Ms. Gordon’s reactions are equally unlikely. So through three vignettes, we have met four characters, and now we don’t much care for three of them. By the end of the film, we find ourselves not really liking anyone we’ve come across.

Jason Schwartzman plays sketchy attorney to an equally-sketchy tech guru played by Avi Nash, and Schwartzman’s character is later visited in the night by his mentor-ghost (Roy Nathanson). What we have is a series of interconnections that overlap and tie-in the lives of multiple characters. Between each segment, there is a musical interlude where we see Jon Natchez performing the music. It’s an odd, experimental, extremely talkative approach to COVID cinema that seems to play on our many insecurities and frustrations. It’s difficult to imagine too many finding this entertaining now that so many new features are being released, so it’s best to keep in mind that the actors, crew, and filmmakers all continued to work in spite of the many challenges.

Available in theaters and On Demand beginning November 18, 2022

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BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER (2022)

November 8, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. The big secret was spoiled before the film ever hit theaters, and of course, I won’t reveal anything here for those who have managed to avoid the leaks. We do learn the identity of the new Black Panther, complete with action sequences. What really stands out in this sequel to the 2018 original, is that writer-director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole return with less action, and more focus on grief, the transition of power, and the introduction of yet another society that has lived undetected for generations.

The film opens with the death of King T’Challa from a mysterious illness. We see his mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) and the whole of Wakanda attending his funeral in a sea of white. Ms. Bassett kicks into dominant Queen Mother mode, while butting heads at times with Shuri in a collision of tradition vs. science. A couple of sequences make sure we understand that Vibranium remains the most valuable and sought-after natural resource on the globe. Wakanda will stop at nothing to protect their way of life and their corner on the Vibranium market. However, it turns out, it’s not a corner they control, but rather one they share with a previously unknown society.

The CIA is involved … in a botched mission of greed, of course … and this means Agent Everett K Ross (Martin Freeman) continues his communication relationship with Wakanda, which drags the agency director and his ex-wife (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) into the fray. The story has many tentacles and bounces around the globe, mostly to appear complicated and important. Other familiar characters are back, including the fierce Okoye (Danai Gurira, a standout in the first film), M”Baku (Winston Duke, given little to do this time), and super spy Nakia (Lupita N’yongo) who now runs a school in Haiti.

New to the proceedings are Dominique Thorne, who plays 19-year-old MIT science and technology whiz, Riri Williams, and especially Tenoch Huerta as Namor, the ruler of the underwater kingdom of Talokan. Not back are Daniel Kaluuya (scheduling conflicts?) and, of course, the late Chadwick Boseman, who passed away in 2020. Director Coogler includes a tribute to Boseman over the opening credits, and another near the film’s end.

The film is two hours and forty-one minutes long, and definitely drags at times. Still, the attempt at in-depth storytelling is commendable in the Marvel universe, though on a couple of occasions, the interjection of songs are distracting and recall 1980’s filmmaking. The underwater segments look somewhat realistic rather than cartoonish, and the reveal of the new Black Panther probably won’t surprise many – although the high-profile cameo might. Everything about the movie seems to set the stage for more sequels, all quite likely despite this one not reaching the unattainable level of the original.

Opens wide in theaters beginning November 11, 2022

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Theater Review: MY FAIR LADY (2022, Dallas)

November 3, 2022

“I could have danced all night”. That felt like the sentiment enveloping the audience as the curtain dropped on last night’s performance at Dallas’ Music Hall at Fair Park. It was the second performance of the show’s stop on Broadway Dallas, and nostalgia filled the air as many were singing along to the familiar songs and laughing oh-so-slightly ahead of the famous punchlines. Watching live stage shows of beloved material is always a bit confusing. We usually have actors and voices ingrained in our memories, and it can be a bit uneasy to experience a different style.

The history here dates back to George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 stage play, “Pygmalion”, and how it inspired the 1956 Broadway production (winner of six Tony Awards) starring Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison and the 1964 George Cukor film (winner of eight Oscars) starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison (reprising his stage role). With lyrics by Allan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe, most everyone is familiar with the most popular songs … as evidenced by the number of people ‘quietly’ singing along in their seats last evening.

Eliza Doolittle, the cockney flower girl at the center of the story is played here by Madeline Powell. Ms. Powell’s diminutive stature and beautiful red hair put her own twist on the character, and her acting and singing keep us enchanted. It’s really Jonathan Grunert as Professor Henry Higgins that stretches his phonetician character to extremes that some may find more challenging to accept. Rather than the savoir vivre of Rex Harrison, Mr. Grunert brings a frenzied energy to the role that may prevent some from finding any empathy for his plight. On the bright side, his singing was the easiest to hear.

The story involves a wager between Higgins and Colonel Pickering (played here by John Adkison) when Higgins claims he can turn the streetwise Eliza into one who can pass as “a proper lady”. Act 1 is filled with the ‘real’ Eliza and her struggles with the language, as well as segments with her father (Michael Hegarty) and his drinking buddies singing “With a Little Bit of Luck”. Act 2 shows us what happens after “The Rain in Spain”, Eliza’s big breakthrough. All of the familiar songs are performed, including “Why Can’t the English?”, “Wouldn’t it be Loverly?”, the raucous “Get Me to the Church on Time”, and “I Could have Danced all Night”. Easily the best singer featured in the troupe is Cameron Loyal who plays Freddy Eynsford-Hill, the man haplessly taken by Eliza’s ‘slip’ at the horse races.

Based in London in 1912, the tone shifts with the self-congratulatory piece, “You did it!” after the ball, and again with the finale, ““I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face”. The orchestra was superb, if not a touch too loud, under conductor David Andrews Rogers, and the entertaining production under the direction of Tony-winner Bartlett Sher runs just under 3 hours with intermission.

For more information:

“My Fair Lady” runs through November 13, 2022 at Music Hall at Fair Park in Dallas


THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN (2022)

November 3, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. IN BRUGES is a cinematic litmus test. It turns out, whether someone is a fan of that movie or not is a particularly dependable indicator of similar or disparate tastes in dark comedy material. For me, it’s a film I never tire of … whether re-watching in its entirety or catching just a few scenes while surfing. The plot is bleak, yet we laugh. The characters are sad, yet we are charmed. It’s the perfect blend of character, story, and setting … and proves how exceptional and precise screenwriting can be. So why am I writing so much about a movie from 2008? Well, that film’s writer-director, Martin McDonagh, is back, and he’s brought along that film’s co-stars, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson.

Now don’t think this is yet another in the endless stream of Hollywood sequels. It’s not. These are (much) different characters in a (much) different setting. What does remain the same is the onscreen magic when Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson collaborate with writer-director McDonagh. It’s how some singers are meant to sing one song (Sinatra belting “New York, New York”), or how some athletes are tied to a particular team (Sandy Koufax to the Dodgers). These three talented men are at their best when working together.

Padraic (Farrell) and Colm (Gleeson) have been best buddies for most of their lives. Every day at 2:00, Padraic fetches Colm and they head to the pub. One could set their watch by this. That all changes one day when Colm refuses to answer the door when his pal knocks. Later that day, he informs Padraic that they are no longer friends, as he refuses to waste another moment drowning in inane conversation, and instead will focus on fiddle music and living his life to the fullest. Padraic is shook and confused … as are the bartender and the other folks in this quaint (fictional) seaside village in coastal Ireland. There is a certain symmetry with the civil war playing out on the mainland and this break in a friendship. A crack about not knowing why the sides are fighting in the war adds yet more symmetry as Padraic searches for meaning in the rift.

When Colm finally tells Padraic that he doesn’t like him anymore and he doesn’t want his old friend speaking a word to him, we initially understand and agree with his reasoning, even if it seems a bit harsh. Padraic is a bit of a bore – a man satisfied with his work as a milk farmer and spending off hours petting Jenny, his pet donkey, before blowing a couple more hours chatting at the pub, and ultimately retiring to the tiny cottage he shares with his erudite sister Siobhan (a superb Kerry Condon, “Better Call Saul”, “Ray Donovan”). Dull, dim, not a thinker … all descriptions of Padraic we hear, though his self-reflection finds a gentle, kind soul – mostly harmless and enjoying his daily life. Well, that is, right up until his best friend locks him out.

The interactions between Padraic and Colm are fascinating to watch. The two actors play off each other so well, we find ourselves hoping they will be together on screen without a break. It’s here where McDonagh’s script really shines. Ms. Condon as Siobhan and Barry Keoghan (DUNKIRK, THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER, 2017) as Dominic both play significant roles  (as does Jenny the miniature donkey). What initially seems like commentary on a shattered friendship between two men expands significantly thanks to these two characters. It reminds us that our network, regardless of how small, has an impact on others, even on a remote island in Ireland. The script and actors blend here to drive home the point.

Siobhan begins to question her own existence and how she might pursue her own dreams. Local boy Dominic is the son of an abusive policeman, and his troubles seem to run deeper than just being the town oddball. He likely has mental issues, yet occasionally shows flashes of hyper-awareness. He befriends Padraig after the split, and his unconventional personality never quite sits well with others. When Dominic’s own dream gets shot down, he doesn’t possess the capacity to handle it well. The story and the island sustain tragedies, both small and large, and to top it off, there is a creepy old woman in the village who has visions of death.

Once we have settled into the drum beat of the split between Padraig and Colm, McDonagh raises the stakes, bringing an unusual form of violence into the proceedings. This catches us and Padraig and the whole of the village off guard, and makes for a stunning visual and eye-opening shock. There is no way to go into further detail without spoilers that should not be conveyed. What you need to know is that this is expert filmmaking, superb screenwriting, and the best acting of Colin Farrell’s career … leading the way for other excellent performances. Facing one’s own mortality is never easy, and we can each relate to Colm’s search for meaning as he sees time slipping away. The film also treats us to the best ever confessional scene, and more frequent uses of the word “fecking” than we’ve ever experienced. The beauty of the island is shown, but never featured. Instead, McDonagh does what he does best – delivers memorable characters and dialogue and unforgettable surprises. He also makes us wonder if our laughter is socially acceptable, causing us to be thankful for the dark theater.

Opening wide in theaters on November 4, 2022

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CAUSEWAY (2022)

November 3, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. A soldier’s injuries come in too many types to describe, and we often see the emotional side is every bit as difficult to recover from as a physical injury. PTSD is frequently explored in films, and in Lila Neugebauer’s first feature film, it corresponds to a severe brain injury. Combining on the screenplay were co-writers Ottessa Moshfegh, Luke Goebel, and Elizabeth Sanders, and their ‘quiet’ approach works thanks to superb performances from Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence and Brian Tyree Henry.

We first see a silent Lynsey (Ms. Lawrence) being taken into the care of Sharon (a terrific Jayne Houdyshell). Lynsey rarely speaks and her motor skills are corrupted. Sharon must help her with such mundane movements as picking up a glass of water, brushing her teeth, using the toilet, or even standing. The recovery from a brain injury is long and arduous and never guaranteed, but we flash forward to see Lynsey’s progress and ultimate return to her hometown of New Orleans where her further recovery will occur.

Her mother (Linda Emond) isn’t there to pick Lynsey up from the bus stop, and it’s our first indication of the long-ago disconnect between mother and daughter. Lynsey is determined to recover and be cleared for redeployment. The military was her initial escape from this life, so she’s banking on it happening again. Her goal is to have her neurologist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) sign the waiver, clearing her for active duty. To help her cause, she takes a job cleaning pools, and when her truck’s carburetor dies, Lynsey meets shop owner James (Brian Tyree Henry), and the two quickly establish a friendship.

Lynsey and James are both broken, lonely souls who share the pain that accompanies pasts highlighted by trauma. Neither is quick to discuss, but we soon enough learn about the roadside bombs that got Lynsey, and enough of James’ story to understand why he drinks and smokes and is understanding of her situation. Jennifer Lawrence has an emotional scene with her brother (Russell Harvard), and her scenes with Ms. Emond convey exactly what we need to know, but it’s her scenes with Brian Tyree Henry that showcase the highest standard of grounded acting … characters we believe exist. Although the script shortchanges the struggles involved with recovering from a brain injury, the two actors capture the essence of broken souls in need of this unlikely friendship.

Streaming on AppleTV+ beginning November 4, 2022

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GOOD NIGHT OPPY (2022, doc)

November 3, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. “Check out the brain on Brad!” There may or may not have been a ‘Brad’ on the NASA team we follow in Ryan White’s documentary, however Samuel L Jackson’s famous line from PULP FICTION certainly holds true for the rest of the team that helped execute the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission. A brief overview outlines the attempts to gain approval, followed by the design and planning and testing to ensure the window for launch was met. See, the launch was scheduled according to a planetary alignment that only occurs every 26 months. A late arrival would have been costly, and possibly ended the program before it really started.

The mission was to send a rover to Mars and have it procure samples from around the red planet in hopes of finding evidence of water, which would likely mean proof of past life. We see some of the design stage as the engineers note the human characteristics, though most movie fans will immediately notice physical similarities to WALL-E. The team created two “twin” robotic rovers named “Spirit” and “Opportunity”. The expectation was that each would have a 90-day lifespan and send scientifically significant data back. The race was on to meet the launch date in 2003, and the two rovers were launched three weeks apart – and to different areas of the planet.

After the 6-and-a-half-month flight time to travel 300 million miles, the two rovers were successfully landed, which only kicked off some of the challenges back on Earth in mission control. It’s here, and with the numerous interviews of team members, that we really get a sense of the emotions running through these folks who had invested so much time and energy into making the mission a reality. Computer engineered reenactments (stunning work from Industrial Light & Magic) help us visualize what happened on Mars, while the archival footage from inside the NASA control room conveys the palpable tension as they helplessly wait for the next signal to arrive.

Although Mr. White’s documentary centers on scientific achievement, much of the focus lands on the human element. We are there to witness first the relief, and then the jubilation as that first signal from Mars is received. Scientists, designers, engineers, and drivers all experience the rollercoaster of emotions driven by the intense camaraderie and teamwork involved. Should you ever doubt whether the smartest people on the planet experience human emotions, you need only look at the faces as daily ‘wake-up songs’ are played, including “Roam” by the B-52s, “SOS” by Abba, “Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf. Additionally, after the 90-day window has closed, the annual “cocktail napkin” records each team members prediction about rover survival over the coming year.

Emotions and accomplishments go hand in hand for these NASA types, as do the challenges presented by harsh winters and dust storms that put west Texas to shame. It’s remarkable that Spirit lasted more than 7 years, and Oppy (the “lucky rover”) went for 15, before finally being shut down while Billie Holiday sang “I’ll be Seeing You.” Wisely, director White ends on a high not with the 2020 launch of the new rover, Perseverance. What an inspiring trip this is.

Opens in US theaters on November 4, 2022 and on Prime Video November 23.

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LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S BLACK & BLUES (2022, doc)

October 27, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s likely that the vast majority of folks ten years of age and older have heard, and are familiar with, Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”, “Hello Dolly”, and “When the Saints Go Marching In”. In director Sacha Jenkins’ homage to this icon of American music, Wynton Marsalis states Armstrong deserves even more credit for his influence in jazz. The film offers an in-depth look at Armstrong’s life through his own personal archives – a library of audio tapes and years of meticulous scrapbooking.

We learn of his ties to both New Orleans, where he was raised in poverty, and Queens, where he lived much of his adult life. Of course, he frequently encountered prejudices and racism – often unable to sleep or eat at the establishments where he was performing. Even many blacks criticized him for not being more active in the Civil Rights Movement. Armstrong’s approach was to donate to causes rather than preach, as he knew the power his words would carry. As a kid, he delivered coal to brothels, and it was at age 13 in an orphanage where he received his first horn. Later, he originated scat and his improvisation influenced others, while hitting those high notes became his calling card.

Known to most as either “Satchmo” or “Pops”, Armstrong’s musical instincts and talent were second to none. It’s fascinating to hear James Baldwin state that the first time he liked the “Star Spangled Banner” was when he heard Armstrong play it. We learn of his four wives, though only two are mentioned by name: Lil, the piano player was his first, while Lucille was his last. His personality made Armstrong a hit on TV talk shows and in Hollywood movies. However, the most impactful moments may be watching him prove how music can cross racial barriers as evidenced by his time on stage with Jack Teagarden and Danny Kaye. Louis Armstrong’s sparkling eyes and magnetic smile invited us in, but it’s his music that takes over … even 50 years after his death.

Jenkins’ informative documentary is filled with beautiful music and premieres on Apple TV+ beginning October 28, 2022