A MAN CALLED OTTO (2023)

January 5, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

Opens in theaters on January 6, 2023

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GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO (2022)

December 9, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Looking for someone to create the opposite of a whimsical childhood fairy tale? The obvious answer is filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (an Oscar winner). He has built his career on delivering dark thrillers that dig into the recesses of our nightmares (PAN’S LABRYNTH, THE SHAPE OF WATER). In fact, he’s a master of this, which makes his vision of Carlo Callodi’s 1883 book a must see. GDT shares a director credit with animation expert Mark Gustafson (FANTASTIC MR FOX, 2009) and screenwriting credit with Patrick McHale. Matthew Robbins has a ‘screen story’ credit, and of course it all links back to Callodi’s source material.

From scene one we immediately sense the different approach than both the light-hearted Disney animated classic from 1940 and Robert Zemeckis’ sentimental live-action version starring Tom Hanks released just a few months ago. It’s darker and gloomier with a unique stop-action look saturated in browns. We also recognize that GDT has chosen a different timeline, as the effects of one of the last WWI bombs takes the life of Geppetto’s beloved young son, Carlo, and Mussolini and fascism are referenced throughout the story.

Everyone knows the story, and the core remains intact – though GDT adds his special touches and twists. One night, a drunken grieving woodcrafter carves a wooden puppet. As Geppetto sleeps it off, the Wood Sprite brings the puppet to life, and just like that, Pinocchio is born and Geppetto has his new son. Another unexpected twist is how much of the film is musical with song lyrics and music by del Toro and the film’s composer, two-time Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat. But don’t mistake songs for an upbeat movie. It’s still dark and bleak, and of course, GDT nails the sea beast whose belly houses Geppetto and Mr. Cricket in the most thrilling segment.

Young Gregory Mann voices Pinocchio and Carlo, Ewan McGregor voices Sebastian J Cricket, and David Bradley is Geppetto. Beyond that, the all-star voice cast features Ron Perlman, John Turturro, Finn Wolfhard, Cate Blanchett, Tim Blake Nelson, Christoph Waltz, Tilda Swinton, and Burn Gorman. No one does fantasy-horror better than Guillermo del Toro, and even with his first foray into animation, delivers a unique look and spin on a familiar story. He even makes it easy to pick up on the Frankenstein (the Mary Shelley novel) influence, so I’ll say it again … don’t mistake this for the family-friendly Disney fare you grew up on.

Opens in theaters and Netflix on December 9, 2022

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WHITE NOISE (2022)

December 2, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Writer-director Noah Baumbach’s latest film is one of those that causes us to feel a bit guilty at not finding it as important or noble as it finds itself. That’s not meant to be as critical as it sounds. Afterall, Baumbach is the one who has managed to bring the “unfilmable” … Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel (National Book Award for fiction) … to the big screen. Baumbach’s last film was MARRIAGE STORY (2019), a masterpiece on relationships, and while this current film is a more ambitious undertaking, it likely will prove less accessible to many viewers.

Adam Driver stars as Jack Gladney, a professor at a (fictitious) midwestern college, who has reached celebrity status through his Hitler studies curriculum – although he remains uneasy at his own inability to speak German. Jack’s own home life teeters on bedlam most every day. He and his wife Babbette (Greta Gerwig, director Baumbach’s real life spouse) are both on their fourth marriage, and their blended family of kids results in tension and more overlapping dialogue than one would find in a filled sports arena. Babbette is showing signs of early onset dementia, and is regularly and secretly taking a drug called Dylar. Of course, it’s the 1980’s and Google hasn’t been born, so Jack and Babbette’s daughter Denise (Raffey Cassidy) find themselves scouring books and asking doctors about the mysterious drug.

There are some amazing lines (most taken straight from DeLillo’s novel) throughout the film, and Act 1 features a stunning rap-battle type lecture with Jack and his colleague Murray Suskind (Don Cheadle) taking on Elvis versus Hitler and their relationships with their respective mothers. It’s filmed like a boxing match and most of the students seem oblivious to this treat. Act 2 is labeled “The Airborne Toxic Event” and it’s a fiery tanker car (filled with toxic waste) explosion that marks the transition. A mass evacuation takes the family to Camp Daffodil for 9 days, and Jack’s limited exposure to the toxic air places him in peril and leads to Act 3 where the fear of death merges with the discovery of Babbette’s Dylar source. The question then becomes, will Jack first die or commit murder … because, as we are told, men are killers.

Jack’s son is aptly named Heinrich and is played by Sam Nivola (the son of Alessandro Nivola and Emily Mortimer). Baumbach is an intellect obsessed with neurotic intellectual characters, and he thrives at blurring the line between satire and societal commentary … which is obviously why he was drawn to DeLillo’s novel. The film is often chaotic, and is an odd blend of science fiction, the ugliness of consumerism, and teasing the end of our world and existential contemplation reflecting our fear of death. Especially effective are the Production Design of Jess Gonchor and the work of composer Danny Elfman. Perhaps there could be no better ending than the dance number in the vitally important local grocery store that continues through the closing credits. The film is funny, frightening, and a bit of a downer that offers more questions than answers – an adaptation that serves the novel.

Opening in theaters on December 2, 2022

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VIOLENT NIGHT (2022)

November 30, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. HO-HO-HO! Who is ready for the best ever Santa slasher movie? Admittedly, it’s a narrow sub-genre and anyone that knows me or reads my reviews, knows full well that this is not the type of movie I typically recommend. However, it’s the season for charity and director Tommy Wirkola (HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS, 2013 – sequel in the works) and co-writers Pat Casey and John Miller (the screenwriters behind the “Sonic the Hedgehog” films) have gifted us an extremely violent and often very funny Christmas present, replete with a sledgehammer-slinging Santa Claus.

We first meet an inebriated Santa (“I’m on a break”) at a local pub, where he explains to a mall Santa why he has become so disenchanted with the job … greedy, self-centered kids who only want more video games. The booze numbs Santa’s disgust as he heads off on his sleigh … and Wirkola delivers the first shocking moment as Santa’s barf keys us into the type of twisted tale we are about to experience. David Harbour (best known for “Stranger Things” and HELLBOY, 2019) is absolutely all-in for this far-from-glamorous portrait of jolly ol’ Saint Nick. On his rounds, Santa raids household liquor stashes while chomping on cookies and eschewing skim milk. He’s a full-blown slob, yet still holds a soft spot for “nice” kids, while having little mercy for the “naughty” among us.

Most of the story takes place at the Lightstone family compound, where one-percenter Gertrude (CHRISTMAS VACATION alum Beverly D’Angelo) is the foul-mouthed matriarch ruling over her entitled and unlikable family consisting of daughter Alva (Edi Patterson) and her airhead-actor husband Morgan (Cam Gigandet) and their poser teenage son Bert (Alexander Elliot). Also present for the festive evening are Gertrude’s son Jason (Alex Hassell), his estranged wife Linda (Alexis Louder) and their precious 7-year-old daughter Trudy (Leah Brady). Santa arrives at the Lightstone mansion not long before a team of mercenaries, led by Mr Scrooge (John Leguizamo), storm the place and take the family members hostage. Their mission is to break into the family vault and abscond with $300 million in cash.

What follows is a demented mash-up of DIE HARD (1989), HOME ALONE (1990), BAD SANTA (2003), and THOR (2011). Deadly weapons used here include your expected firearms, but also a finely-honed candy cane, an icicle, a skating shoe, and a Christmas tree star, among other holiday items. Most prominent is the sledgehammer wielded by Santa, and the flashback to his pre-Santa days for explanation. The violent action is plentiful, and it’s well-balanced with countless lines of comedy. Surprisingly, there is a story nestled in amongst the mayhem, and the heart of it revolves around the bond between Santa and young Trudy. She’s a true believer in him and that overrides his uncertainty about the job, and inspires him to stick around for the fight. Santa can’t explain the mystique of Christmas “magic”, but he does know an 1100 year marriage has its ups and downs.

Obviously, this is not one for the kiddos (it’s a hard R-rating), and they should be shielded from this Yuletide yuck. Director Wirkola has delivered an instant holiday classic for those seeking the bizarro world flicks contrasting to the more respectable family fare of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and A CHRISTMAS STORY. Who would have ever thought that Festivus might be the safer holiday?

Opens in theaters on December 2, 2022

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FOUR SAMOSAS (2022)

November 30, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been three years since the breakup with his girlfriend Rina, and Vin is still a lost pup. Writer-director Ravi Kapoor opens his film by showing us the grocery store heist and escape of four people in disguise. He then flashes back to explain what happened … as if the explanation makes things rational.

Can one be an aspiring rapper if they never actually rap? If so, then “Big Boy” Vin (Venk Patula) is an aspiring rapper … well, more like a wistful rapper … still lovesick over the breakup with Rina (Summer Bishil), whose dad (Tony Mirrcandani) owns the grocery store, Juneja’s, that is the target of the heist in the opening scene. Vin is a sorry sari salesman, and when he finds out that Rina is engaged to Sanjay (Karan Soni, recognizable from many roles, including DEADPOOL), he decides to steal the “dirty” diamonds being held in the safe to cover Rina’s wedding.

Vin forms a crew consisting of his best friend Zak (Nirvan Patnaik), described as a Bollywood dreamer; Anjali (Sharmita Bhattacharya), the editor and only writer at “The Great Little India Times”, and described as either an over-underachiever or under-overachiever (I forget which); and Paru (Sonal Shah), a malcontent IT engineer awaiting her green card. Vin convinces each of them to join by appealing to their specific situation, and by terming this a reappropriation of wealth. The story takes place in Artesia, known as “Little India” outside Los Angeles. We even meet Vin’s mother and father (played by the director).

To ensure that we are never lost, director Kapoor inserts frequent title cards with such helpful detail as “Pre-Heist”, “The Heist”, and “Post Heist”. Most of the story focuses on Vin, but it’s actually Ms. Bhattacharya who steals her scene as Anjali. She concocts elaborate plans that are way more complicated than necessary, and these are acted out in humorous fashion by the cast. It’s a quirky comedy with oddball characters poking fun at their own culture, and it’s clear they are all having fun in this deep cut indie. It’s a story of love and friendship (loosely) disguised as a heist-comedy, and we are even told it’s, “A story about love” and “A story about finding a crew.” The comedy has similarities to the old Keystone Cops, and the casual characters are likable enough.

Opening in theaters and On Demand on December 2, 2022

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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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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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RAYMOND & RAY (2022)

October 15, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Hey, you know that Dad we hated … the one that ruined our lives? Well, he died and I need you to come with me to the funeral. Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia (ALBERT NOBBS, 2011) starts his film in this manner by having Raymond knock on the door of his half-brother Ray’s cabin door in the middle of the night. They haven’t seen each other in five years, but their shared bond is an ill will towards the father who stirred such misery during their childhood that neither have made much of their time since.

Raymond (Ewan McGregor) is a persnickety type; a pent-up bundle of anxiety who has gone through a couple of divorces and is currently separated from his third wife. Ray (4-time Oscar nominee Ethan Hawke) is his opposite – the former addict (7 years sober) puts off the ultra-cool guy vibe with rumpled clothes, tousled hair, and non-stop flirtations. His talent with music was never encouraged by the father and has since been a source of frustration. In other words, these two grown men are messes due to the resentment they’ve carried for their father and his inexcusably poor parenting.

At first, we assume the two men are going to sit around reminiscing about their horrible memories of dear old dad. Instead, they hop in the car and head out of town to the funeral. It’s here where they begin to piece together the last years of their father’s life. Bedridden at the end, he had a room in a former (and younger) lover’s house. Lucia (an excellent Maribel Verdu, Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN, 2001) welcomes the men with the surprise disclosure that her young son is their half-brother. At the viewing, they meet dad’s nurse Kiera (the always terrific Sophie Okonedo). No, she doesn’t have another half-brother for them, but she zeroes in on Ray and his approach to the proceedings.

More surprises await Ray and Raymond, not the least of which is that dad’s final wish was for them to dig his grave by hand. At the grave site, they are joined by dad’s flamboyant pastor (Vondie Curtis Hall), as well as others with a bond to the man in the pine box. Most of these people are unknown to Ray and Raymond, and they begin to realize the man they’ve held in contempt went on to live a full life. Veteran actor Tom Bower has limited screen time as the dad, and overall the cast is strong and deserving of a script that could take the topic and these characters much deeper. Hawke is especially good as the brother holding in so many emotions, while McGregor plays off of him quite well. While there is nothing here we haven’t seen before, we do wish the cast had more to work with.

The film will have a limited theatrical release on October 14, 2022 prior to screening on AppleTV+ beginning October 21, 2022

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SELL/BUY/DATE (2022)

October 15, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Sarah Jones is a Tony winning actress and comedian, and one thing is obvious after watching her first film – she is a sensitive and intelligent person. Co-written with David Goldblum, this partially scripted docu-com is described on screen as an “Unorthodoc”. This is an odd film with seemingly conflicting objectives: documenting the process of adapting Ms. Jones’ stage presentation to the big screen or acknowledging the backlash to this by following her on a philosophical journey of self-discovery.

We begin by meeting Sarah Jones and her troupe of characters: an octogenarian Jewish grandmother, a social media-obsessed twenty-something student, a Puerto Rican women’s advocate, and a mouthy Uber driver. Ms. Jones plays each of these characters. Throughout the film, we also meet her real-life mother Leslie, who is helping and sharing in the grief over the recent death of Sarah’s sister. Over the course of the film, Sarah also crosses paths with some familiar faces like Rosario Dawson, Bryan Cranston, Ilana Grazer, Evan Seinfeld, and others (each of these appear as themselves).

Sarah’s elation at having her work turned into a film is soon thwarted by the social media backlash claiming she has no right to tell the story of sex workers within the sex industry. In other words, Sarah herself becomes a victim of cancel culture and scrambles to find a path forward. Now considered an outsider who is not entitled to tell these stories, she digs in and meets with those in the industry to determine whether they are being exploited or if they view this as seizing an opportunity.

What this boils down to is what we once called research, discussion, and debate – all four-letter words these days, but this was the ‘old school’ way of learning about a topic. Sarah heads to Las Vegas for a sex industry conference and even visits the infamous Chicken Ranch, a legally-operated brothel. Sure, some of the bits feel a bit contrived, but it’s a pleasure, and often entertaining, to see Sarah Jones dig deep to find answers to questions she doesn’t already know the answer to. It turns out that old school research and curiosity can also provide some entertainment value.

Releasing in theaters on October 14, 2022

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AMSTERDAM (2022)

October 7, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes no matter how hard we try to like a movie, it simply doesn’t work for us. In those instances, I typically attempt to focus on what I did like and offer an explanation of why it fell short of expectations. And it’s that word, “expectations”, that is usually the culprit. High expectations often lead to disappointment, whereas ‘low’ or ‘no’ expectations at least have a shot of ending up a pleasant surprise. So when the writer-director of SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012) and THE FIGHTER (2010) rolls out his first film in seven years, and his cast is filled with Oscar winners, Oscar nominees, and other talented actors … well, high expectations are in order. Unfortunately, so is the disappointment.

David O Russell is the filmmaker noted above, and despite some disturbing accusations made against him recently, his cinematic track record and ability to attract deep and talented casts and crews make his new project something to check out. This one is inspired by the true story of a1933 political conspiracy, and that’s where the story begins before flashing back to 1918 and ultimately returning to 1933. It’s during the flashback where we see the beginnings of the friendship between Burt Berendsen (Oscar winner Christian Bale) and Harold Woodman (John David Washington). It’s here that we also witness the presence of racism in the military during the Great War. When Burt and Harold are injured, they are cared for by nurse Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie). Harold and Valerie fall in love, and third wheel Burt joins them as a roommate in Amsterdam, where they live a blissful bohemian existence … right up until Burt returns home to his wife and Valerie vanishes.

Returning to 1933, we find Burt is a doctor experimenting with multiple medical options focused on injured war veterans, and Harold is a distinguished lawyer. Burt has a scarred face and glass eye from his war injuries, and Harold has been contacted by the daughter (Taylor Swift) of their former commanding officer (Ed Begley Jr). The daughter suspects foul play in the death of her father, who was scheduled to give a speech at an upcoming military reunion gala. Ms. Swift’s appearance is in fact swift, and leads to the murder and scandalous autopsy findings.

Going through all that happens next would be as convoluted on paper as it was on screen. There are so many characters and so many story lines and so many familiar faces that the film couldn’t possibly be expected to flow smoothly. And it doesn’t. A mention of some of the supporting cast includes standout Anya Taylor-Joy as the wife of filthy rich Tom Voze played by (Oscar winner) Rami Malek. When the murder occurs, Burt and Harold are the prime suspects of the detectives played by Matthias Schoenaerts and Alessandro Nivola. Andrea Riseborough plays Burt’s estranged and ultra-snobby wife Beatrice, while Chris Rock is another old war buddy of our wrongfully accused murder suspects. Robert DeNiro (another Oscar winner) plays General Gil Dillenbeck (who we learn is based on real life Major General Smedley Butler). Others making an appearance include: Michael Shannon and Mike Myers as American and British spies, Timothy Olyphant as an undefined henchman, Zoe Saldana as the autopsy nurse, and the always dependable Colleen Camp and Beth Grant. Now you understand what I mean by so many characters and familiar faces.

All of the actors are as strong as you would expect. Mr. Bale and Ms. Robbie go “big”, while Mr. Washington stays in a low-key mode for balance. The film has an unusual look through the camera of 3-time Oscar winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and seems to be filled with an endless stream of close-ups shot upward at the subject’s face. It’s not a whodunnit since we see the crime happen, and instead is more of a “we must solve the case to avoid prison” – kind of a quasi-comedy caper film, only they aren’t trying to get away with anything. It’s also not quite a farce, and is a madcap with a shortage of “mad”. We see the power play between various factions that catches the unsuspecting types in the crosshairs, while raising points of fascism, antisemitism, and racism. The film meanders when it’s not downright choppy, and it often plays like a scripted series trying too hard to appear improvisational. I believe the message is the power of friendship and love wins over the lust for power, however it’s hard to know for sure. Drake as an Executive Producer adds an element of interest, but as a movie, this one mostly falls flat despite the efforts of a sterling cast.

Opens in theaters on October 7, 2022

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