HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA: TRANSFORMANIA (2022, animation)

January 13, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. There is nothing wrong with delivering exactly what’s expected for kids’ movies. It’s a bit bewildering that so many fall short. This is the fourth (and final) film in the hugely successful “Transylvania” animated movie franchise, although it’s the first not directed by Genndy Tartakovsky (credited here as co-writer and Executive Producer). Also missing this time are Adam Sandler and Kevin James, who previously voiced Dracula and Frankenstein, respectively. The character voices have been replaced by Brian Hull and Brad Abrell, and rest assured, the vast majority of young fans will never notice. The film is co-directed by Derek Drymon (one of the creative forces behind the ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ franchise – including video games and movies) and Jennifer Kluska (the main director in the ‘Wild Kratts’ series). What they’ve done is deliver exactly what’s expected … a fun time for kids.

It’s been 10 years since the first HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA (2012) and nearly four years since the most recent, HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA 3: SUMMER VACATION (2018). As this one begins, Dracula is throwing a party to celebrate the hotel’s 125th anniversary. It opens with Dracula and his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) dancing to “Just the Two of Us”. The sweet moment soon morphs into “Just the Three of Us” as her husband Johnny (Andy Samberg) joins in. This is the first, but certainly not the last, transformation – as you’ve probably guessed by the title.

The characters and visuals are the key elements for most kids, and ‘Transylvania’ is here to serve. What’s interesting this time is that Johnny and Mavis are the key players. Thanks to a special ray gun that transforms (there’s that word again) humans to monsters and monsters to humans, the big kick here is that Johnny is zapped and becomes a colorful and zany dragon that is sure to generate laughs. Cellar-bound Van Helsing (a returning Jim Gaffigan) is the developer of the ray gun. After a series of mishaps result with the party punch turning most of the monsters into human form, the whole crew sets off on a South American adventure to locate a replacement crystal so the ray gun can return them to their natural monster state.

Since most kids’ movies include a life lesson or moral, you can probably guess what happens to the characters on that journey. Being transformed gives them a different perspective and appreciation of the “other” side. That said, the comedy here leans towards the slapstick and pratfalls of classic cartoons, especially Looney Toons. Kids are sure to enjoy the ‘physical’ comedy, in particular that of Johnny as an eager-to-please dragon.

Many of the voices are returning actors, and include Fran Drescher (Eunice, the Bride of Frankenstein), Steve Buscemi (Wayne the Werewolf), David Spade (Griffin the Invisible Man), and Keegan-Michael Key (Murray the Mummy). There is a humorous recurring gag for grown-ups with Frankenstein and how much he admires his human looks, a startling visual of BB the guinea pig, and a reminder of why momma always told you to keep an eye on your drink at parties. Those familiar with the Transylvania franchise should be satisfied, and any new viewers should be entertained … exactly what’s expected.

Premieres on Amazon Prime Video this Friday, January 14, 2022

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LICORICE PIZZA (2021)

December 23, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. The only honest way for me to begin is to simply admit that I adore this movie. In fact, I may love it as much as writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson loved making it. The setting is 1970’s San Fernando Valley, the area where the director was raised, and it’s such a caring tribute and sweet story (while also being exciting and nostalgic) that’s it’s tempting to stop writing and just encourage everyone to watch it. My only regret is that for those who weren’t around during this time period, some of the attention to detail and meticulous filmmaking won’t strike the same chord as it will for the rest of us.

Gary Valentine is played by first time actor Cooper Hoffman, who also happens to be the son of the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman (Oscar winner, CAPOTE). The elder Hoffman gave some of his best performances in PT Anderson movies, so it’s only fitting that the son explodes onto the scene under his tutelage. The character is loosely based on Gary Goetzman, who was a teenage waterbed entrepreneur, musician, and actor, and who is now a successful film and TV producer. In this story, Gary is a 15 year old actor and hustler – the kind of hustler always looking for the next big thing, whether it be the waterbed craze, or the opening of a pinball parlor. Young Hoffman plays him with an advanced confidence and ever-ready smile that puts people at ease.

On school picture day, Gary strikes up a conversation with photographer assistant Alana Kane (another first time actor, Alana Haim). She’s 10 years older than Gary, but is smitten by his confidence and conversation skills. You may find it weird that the two become friends. That’s OK, because even Alana thinks it’s weird. In fact, they spend most of the movie acting like they aren’t attracted to each other. Now you may find the situation off-putting, but I assure you it’s handled with grace and care. They make a dynamic duo, with Gary being advanced for his age, while Alana is a bit stunted – or at least, grasping to find herself.

The Gary and Alana story is the heart of the film, yet Anderson injects so many vignettes or additional pieces that there is no time to chill or even think about what we are watching. The brilliance is in the small touches … but also the outrageous moments, of which none are better than Bradley Cooper’s hyped up role as hairdresser-turned-Producer Jon Peters. His couple of scenes with Gary and Alana are some of the funniest I’ve seen all year. And if that’s not enough, we watch in awe as two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn charms Alana as actor Jack Holden (clearly a poke at Oscar winner William Holden) at the Tail o’ the Cock restaurant. These scenes are crafted as observations on the 70’s, but also clever comedy.

Anderson has packed his cast with recognizable talent. Tom Waits and Christine Ebersole are particularly effective in short scenes, she as real life agent Lucy Doolittle. Actor-director Benny Safdie shows up as local politician Joel Wachs, and Joseph Cross as his “friend”. John Michael Higgins has a cringe-inducing and politically incorrect role as the owner of an Asian restaurant, and the number of Hollywood bloodlines represented here is too great to count: Sasha and Destry Allen Spielberg, Tim Conway Jr, George DiCaprio (Leo’s dad), and Ray Nicholson (Jack’s boy). Maya Rudolph has a scene, Mary Elizabeth Ellis plays Gary’s mother, and John C Reilly briefly appears as Herman Munster. On top of all that, Alana Haim’s real life sisters and parents play her family. If you aren’t familiar, the three Haim sisters make up the well-known band HAIM, and have had videos directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.

Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood has become Anderson’s go-to composer, and his work here dazzles as it maintains the balance between drama and comedy. Beyond Greenwood’s score is the complementary soundtrack featuring the perfect selection of period tunes. Of course, given the time period, we get references of Richard Nixon, DEEP THROAT, and gas lines due to gas shortages, but Anderson never lets the down time overtake the fun. Director Anderson has 8 Oscar nominations, but no wins despite such extraordinary work as PHANTOM THREAD (2017), THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007), MAGNOLIA (1999), and others. It’s a shame this masterpiece has been released in the same year as THE POWER OF THE DOG, which will likely keep Anderson out of the winner’s circle yet again. Should you doubt the high level of this film, you’ll likely find yourself thinking this is Gary’s story while you are watching; however, once you have time to absorb what you’ve seen, you’ll realize this is Alana’s coming-of-age story. This is truly remarkable filmmaking and extraordinary film debuts from Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim.

Opens in theaters on December 24, 2021

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THE MITCHELLS VS THE MACHINES (2021, animated)

December 11, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. What would happen if human survival depended on the Griswolds (from the VACATION movies) battling the rogue robots programmed to take over the planet? Filmmakers Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe answer to that scenario is hyper-active, frenetic, overly-busy visual chaos that attempts to blend apocalyptic science fiction, extreme action sequences, and dysfunctional family comedy-drama. It’s a lot to tackle, and for the most part, it works.

Katie Mitchell (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) is preparing to head to film school. Her nature-loving dad, Rick (Danny McBride) is concerned about how he and Katie have drifted apart over the years, and he’s also worried that her educational choice could lead to disappointment. Katie’s mom, Linda (Maya Rudolph) is mostly supportive and upbeat, and yet a bit saddened that the once close father-daughter duo no longer speak the same language. Youngest son Aaron (voiced by co-director Rianda) and family dog Monchi have their moments, and mostly this is a fairly typical dysfunctional family. In fact, dysfunctional family seems to be a misnomer since it describes most families, even the highly organized one that seemingly have their act together … represented here by the Poseys (Chrissy Teigen and John Legend).

Katie’s generation’s adoption and dependency on technology has widened the gap in connection with the previous generation … specifically the bond between father and daughter that was so strong when she was young, and now barely hangs on by thread. Dad is the generation of the supreme screwdriver, while Katie is all about creating memes and videos. He fixes things, while she creates things. Dad decides a family road trip to drop Katie at college is the solution to fixing the frayed relationship. This happens on the same day that mega-Tech guru Mark Bowman (Eric Andre) is introducing his next-gen PAL robot, which is smart technology on steroids. However, it turns out, software has feelings too, and the original PAL (Olivia Colman) seeks revenge for being replaced. An army of robots is sent to capture the entire human race.

A couple of quirky things leave the Mitchell family as our final hope against the robots, and as you might expect, saving the world can lead to reparations in the father-daughter relationship. Dad gains an appreciation for the creative skills of Katie, while she learns of his great personal sacrifice for family. It’s an unusual blend of two distinct stories, but mostly we are left exhausted after a nearly two hour run time. The screen is often cluttered and overloaded with distractions (including old school Furbys with a twist), and although there is a cool throwback look to some of the animation, it’s simply too much of a good thing. Younger kids may be mesmerized by the frantic action, but the story lines are not likely to be followed by most under 10 or so. This one has garnered a great deal of Oscar buzz, which makes sense as adults decide such things.

Streaming on Netflix

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DON’T LOOK UP (2021)

December 9, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. What happens if Chicken Little was right, and the sky really is falling? Writer-director, and Oscar winner, Adam McKay proved with THE BIG SHORT (2015) and VICE (2018) what occurs when he turns his unique commentary towards a target. Two questions remain. Is political or social satire just too easy these days? Has insanity permeated our globe to the degree that pointing out the lunacy has become ho-hum? McKay wrote the script from journalist David Sirota’s story, and it’s even more extreme than his previous work, and likely meant as a wake-up call to all of us.

Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence stars as Kate Dibiasky, a student (with a Carl Sagan figurine on her desk) who discovers a large comet speeding towards earth. Oscar winner Leonardo DiCaprio stars as her professor, Dr. Randall Mindy, and we can see on his face what his calculations mean. The two head to Washington DC to inform the President of their findings. President Orlean (a nod for movie buffs) is played by Oscar winner Meryl Streep, and her Chief of Staff is Jonah Hill, who also happens to be her son. President Orlean is too concerned about her slipping rating in popularity polls to pay much heed to the scientists, opening the way for Jonah Hill to be the most Jonah Hill he’s ever been. It’s an outrageous scene … yet … it feels all too possible.

Dibiasky and Mindy are so shocked and frustrated at the blow-off, they decide to take the story to the media. Appearing on the vacuous and highly-rated morning talk show, “The Rip”, they are guided to “Keep it light. Keep it fun” while on the air with the entirely too-upbeat co-hosts played by Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry. At this point, Dibiasky is unable to control her frustration. This results in her becoming a social media meme, while Dr. Mindy becomes the “hot” astronomer – labeled an AILF. This is an obvious take on Dr. Fauci’s popularity during the pandemic. Other opportunities for Mindy includes getting closer with Blanchett’s talk show host, despite his wife (Melanie Lynskey) taking care of the home front.

Obviously most of these characters are a bit cartoonish, but that’s the point. Once the media pressures the President into taking action, an ARMAGEDDON type mission is planned, only to be scratched at the last moment and replaced by a more profitable option. Peter Isherwell (Oscar winner Mark Rylance as a blend of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk) is a tech billionaire and President Orlean supporter, and his plan involves mining the meteor for precious metals while also saving the planet.

Although Dibiasky has dropped out of the ‘spread the word’ campaign, she’s still tracking the approaching asteroid via her diet app as she hangs with a philosophical stoner played by Timothy Chalamet. It started as 6 months and 14 days, and we only get periodic updates on how much time remains. Instead, the focus is on the bumbling antics of those involved and the zany reactions of the general public. We even get President Orlean with a speech from the deck of a battleship in yet another dig at past politicians. Pop star Arianna Grande shifts her celebrity support from manatees to a hit duet with Kid Cudi entitled “Just Look Up”, while Himesh Patel plays an opportunistic reporter-boyfriend. Also, Rob Morgan is excellent in his role as supportive scientist Dr. Oglethorpe, and Ron Perelman goes a bit off the rails as the pilot on the first mission.

It’s an incredible cast and what a joy to see DiCaprio in a role so far removed from his usual characters. He even gets a NETWORK scene here, and overall he makes us understand how serious the science is, and how easily someone can go off track. Jennifer Lawrence gets the film’s best recurring gag, while Jonah Hill fits right in as the impetuous benefactor of nepotism. With the abundance of tooth veneers flashed by a multitude of characters, we can assume the film’s dental budget was sky high.

McKay uses the oncoming meteor as a stand-in for the global warming issue, and his tendency to lean heavily left does shine through. However, it’s crucial to note that no one, no thing, no organization, and no affiliation is safe during this one. Whereas ARMAGEDDON took pride and patriotism of blue collar folks and turned them into heroes, McKay examines the other side which is all about feelings, discussions, social media, and popularity. He blends Kubrick’s DR STRANGELOVE with Judge’s IDIOCRACY (which has proven much too accurate), and delivers a disaster movie that uses an asteroid to point out the real danger … which is ourselves. Is it too much? Too silly? Too angry? Too long? Simply playing to the home crowd? It’s likely to be criticized for not being smart enough or clever enough, but seriously, have you looked around at society lately? McKay delivers loads of comedy here, and maybe by laughing at ourselves, we can find a way to improve things. His final scene is more grounded than the rest of the film, and quite touching on its own. Stay tuned for the credit scenes.

Opening in theaters on December 10, 2021 and streaming on Netflix beginning December 24, 2021

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BACK TO THE OUTBACK (2021, animation)

December 7, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Capturing a kid’s attention is difficult enough, but these days, it’s a real challenge to hold that attention for 90 minutes. You best offer something extremely entertaining, which is exactly what first time (co-) directors Harry Cripps and Clare Knight have done. Ms. Knight previously worked as the Editor on the MADIGASCAR and KUNG FU PANDA movies, and is married to actor Wayne Knight (Newman from “Seinfeld”). Mr. Cripps previously wrote the screenplay to THE DRY (2020) and here he co-wrote the script with producer Gregory Lessans. Of course making animals the center of a kids’ story is nothing new, and neither are the central topics of respect and family, yet this is quite an entertaining way to do so.

While watching the film with a four and five year old, I was able to witness first-hand the reactions and whether or not attention lapsed (theirs, not mine). The film opens at Australian Wildlife Park where Chaz Hunt (voiced by Eric Bana) is a Steve Irwin-type trainer who entertains the crowds and his son Jessie (Diesel La Torraca) with personal adventure stories that may or may not have a sprinkle of truth. But it’s the animals who are the main attractions here. The park features the world-famous cutest animal, Pretty Boy (Tim Minchin), a Koala who excels at posing for pictures. In contrast, the “ugly” ones, or the deadliest ones, include Nigel the neurotic scorpion (Angus Imrie), Zoe the wise-cracking thorny devil lizard (Miranda Tapsell), Frank the funnel web spider who breaks out in dance when attraction strikes (Guy Pearce), and the newest addition, Maddie a taipan snake (Isla Fisher). Acting as a mother-figure to these creatures is Jackie the crocodile (Jackie Weaver).

After a dangerous event caused panic and misunderstanding, Jackie is shipped off away from the park. The other “ugly” animals decide to escape and head home (check the title). Pretty Boy accidentally gets caught up in the escape, and he ends up being quite obnoxious – in constant need of catering and compliments. This stands in stark contrast to the other animals who are quite likable and charming. That’s the gag here, as well as our lesson in ‘beauty is on the inside’.  The road trip through the city and into the desert and mountains is quite an adventure and filled with things that don’t go quite right for this band of misfits. Along the way, they learn of the U.S.S. – the Ugly Secret Society, which is a rescue operation run by animals for other animals that aren’t lovable pets. They even have a funny catchphrase/password! Two of the most fun sequences involve Tasmanian Devils and a couple of toads named Doug and Dorene, who sing “When a Man Loves a Woman”.

The film is obviously aimed at kids who are fascinated with animals, and it’s charming and funny and entertaining for both kids and adults – exactly what you hope for with animated movies. The morals of the story about not judging a book by its cover, and the importance of family, are always good lessons to reinforce for kids. We should all be this ugly.

Available December 10, 2021 on Netflix

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GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE (2021)

November 18, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. There is a reason musical acts like The Eagles, Jimmy Buffet, and The Rolling Stones continue to pack arenas. We love our nostalgia and prefer it familiar and easily recognizable. The fans don’t show up to hear the new songs, but rather those ‘oldies-but-goodies’ that bring back pleasant memories. Writer-director Jason Reitman and co-writer Gil Kenan fully understand this psychology as they deliver what amounts to a sequel of the original GHOSTBUSTERS movie released 37 years ago (and directed by Reitman’s father Ivan).

The hook in this updated version is that Callie (Carrie Coon), the adult daughter of original Ghostbuster Egon Spengler (originally portrayed by the late Harold Ramis), has been evicted from her apartment. She packs up the car and her two kids, and heads to the dilapidated farm house she inherited from the father she never knew. Callie has lived her life bitter and hurt that her father never reached out, choosing instead to isolate himself in Summerville in the “middle of nowhere”. Her kids are Trevor (Finn Wolfhard), an awkward teenager, and Phoebe (a stellar McKenna Grace), a science whiz who seems to be a near-clone of the grandfather she never met.

As they adjust to a new life, Trevor swoons over local girl Lucky (Celeste O’Connor), while Phoebe befriends another outcast self-named Podcast (Logan Kim), and Callie gets closer to Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd), a Seismologist “teaching” summer school with help from some age-inappropriate movies on VHS. As great as Coon and Rudd are (and both are great), the real fun comes from the youngsters exploring grandfather’s workshop and the mysterious mountain at the edge of town, which is actually a long ago abandoned mine run by the town’s founder.

Supporting actors include Bokeem Woodbine, JK Simmons, and Tracy Letts. Many of the elements will seem familiar as the kids begin to uncover the ghostly creatures unlocked thanks to Grandpa Egon’s research and tools. As with the original, busting the ghosts is fun, but it’s the one-liners and crackling dialogue that make this a joyous ride from beginning to end. A battered Ectomobile (Ecto-1) plays a key role, as do ghost traps, crossing streams, and a new generation of Stay-Puft Marshmallows.

Jason Reitman is a two-time Oscar nominee for UP IN THE AIR (2009) and JUNO (2007), but it seems clear his mission here was to provide a fitting tribute to the original film, his father, and the late Harold Ramis. He’s assisted along the way with some special effects and even more special appearances, though the missing Rick Moranis is notable (and expected). The original blockbuster spawned sequels, re-boots, toys, an animated series, video games, documentaries, and now … another sequel (one that mostly disregards everything but the original). There is a Spielberg feel as the scene is small town instead of NYC, and perhaps with this family-friendly focus on the kids, the best comparison might be THE GOONIES. It’s nostalgic, yet new and fresh, and we do get a look at Hook and Ladder #8, and the familiar tune of Ray Parker Jr’s iconic theme song. Hang on for the mid-credit and post-credit scenes, and just remember to take this for what it is … a rollicking good time.

Opening in theaters on November 19, 2021

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BLACK FRIDAY (2021)

November 18, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. The horror-comedy genre boasts many movies that can be described as ‘a blast’ or ‘a wild ride’. Director Casey Tebo and writer Andy Greskoviak wisely jump on a topic that lends itself all too well to this genre: the whole mess we call Black Friday shopping. Ingeniously setting this in a toy store (“We Love Toys”), focusing on the stressed-out employees, and assembling what seems like the perfect cast, the filmmakers somehow come up short, due mostly to a paucity of effective one-liners and visual gags so necessary in a project like this.

Devon Sawa (FINAL DESTINATION, 2000) stars as Ken, the divorced father who is pained at having to drop his kids at his ex-wife’s house as he heads in for his Black Friday shift at the store. We are then introduced to others on the store staff, including Ivana Baquero (Ofelia in the Guillermo del Toro instant classic PAN’S LABYRINTH, 2006) as Marnie, Ryan Lee (SUPER 8, 2011) as germophobe Chris, Michael Jai White (SPAWN, 1997) as Archie the maintenance guy, and Stephen Peck as Bryan, the power-abusing Assistant Manager. Leading this group of misfits is the always-great Bruce Campbell (the EVIL DEAD franchise) as Jonathan, the Store Manager and corporate lackey.

In an early scene we hear a TV newscast that forewarns of an upcoming meteor event, and the science fiction element involves a gooey alien creature/substance that causes even more turmoil than the shortages of this year’s must-have toys. Shoppers are transformed into zombie-flesh-eating-alien-mutants, and the toy store staff teams up in an effort to stay alive. All of the actors do their part. Sawa is effective as the leader, while Baquero lends a strong female presence. White is the epitome of a nail-gun toting action hero, and Campbell delivers his comic force while donning a bow-tie and cardigan. The special effects work, and the only thing missing are searing and cutting quips and one-liners that would complete the picture.

ZOMBIELAND (2009), PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES (2016), THE DEAD DON’T DIE (2019), READY OR NOT (2019), and the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy are all films in this genre that actually delivered what this one should have … what it teased. One Air Supply joke and a riff on corporate greed and out-of-control entitled holiday shoppers was a tremendous idea that would have benefitted from more humorous social commentary. It’s a letdown that may yet find a place the Midnight Movie slot.

Available in theaters and On Demand beginning November 19, 2021

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THE FRENCH DISPATCH (2021)

October 28, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Few things in the cinematic world are more instantly recognizable than a Wes Anderson movie. In fact, historically speaking, perhaps only Jacques Tati comes as close to having a signature style easily spotted by viewers (unless you want to count Tom Cruise sprinting or Julia Roberts cackling). This is Mr. Anderson’s 10th feature film in 25 years, and I now rate 5 of these very highly, though all 10 have a certain appeal. This latest, co-written by Anderson with frequent collaborators Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness, and Jason Schwartzman, could be considered his most ambitious to date … and likely the most ‘Wes Anderson’ of all.

Billed as a love letter to journalists, it becomes crystal clear, that by this, Anderson means the esteemed stable of writers from the early days of “The New Yorker”. In fact, Anderson structures the film as if it were following the path of a magazine being published. We are informed upfront that this edition features “an obituary, a travel guide, and 3 feature articles”. An episodic format is not unusual for films, yet Anderson never does anything by the book. Each piece takes place in its own time period, and there appears to be little connection or crossover among key characters. Still, somehow he makes this work by ensuring each piece stands on its own and is filled with unusual characters and those patented, fabulous Anderson visuals.

The obituary is that of Arthur Howitzer Jr (a deadpan Bill Murray), the founder and publisher of “The French Dispatch” magazine, a spin-off from The Liberty Kansas Evening Sun … a move from a small town in Midwestern United States to a charming small town in France (hilariously and fittingly) named Ennui-sur-Blasé. Howitzer adores his writers, and the only guidance he offers them is, “Just try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose”. He also has a “No Crying” sign posted in his office, likely as much as a reminder to himself as a rule for the staff.

Our travel guide section is fortunately quite brief since it involves Owen Wilson as a bicycle tour guide showing us around the town – the “Local Color”- of Ennui-sur-Blasé. This takes us to the first feature story, and the best of the lot. Tilda Swinton excels (doesn’t she always?) as a writer and art expert giving a colorful lecture entitled “The Concrete Masterpiece”. She tells the story of Moses Rosenthaler (Benecio del Toro), a genius modern artist serving a life sentence for murder, and as she lectures, we see it play out. While incarcerated, Moses continues to work and his muse is a prison guard named Simone, played exceptionally well by Lea Seydoux. Her nude posing for him leads to his signature modern art piece, which attracts the attention of an ambitious art dealer played by Adrien Brody.

“Revisions to a Manifesto” is the next feature, and it involves a young activist named Zeffirelli (Timothee Chalamet). He’s a chess expert, quite moody and has a questionable quest. He’s being covered by writer Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), who is unable to maintain objectivity, and inserts herself right into the story, amongst other things. The segment pays tribute to the activism of the 1960’s and is filmed mostly in black and white.

The third feature, “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” involves writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) telling his story while a guest on Liev Schreiber’s Talk Show in the 1970’s. Roebuck is obviously inspired by James Baldwin, and he famously recalls every line he’s ever written. The story he recites involves a legendary chef played by Steve Park.

Actors mentioned so far are just the headliners, and Anderson has packed the film with his usual troupe, as well as dozens of others – some you’ll recognize, and some you won’t. There are at least seven Oscar winners involved: Christoph Waltz, Fisher Stevens, and Angelica Huston (as narrator), in addition to the aforementioned Swinton, McDormand, del Toro, and Brody. Numerous Oscar nominations and awards are included in the group of other familiar faces like Willem Dafoe, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, Lois Smith, Henry Winkler Bob Balaban, Elisabeth Moss, and Mathieu Amalric.

Other frequent Anderson collaborators who deliver standout work include Production Designer Adam Stockhausen, Cinematographer Robert Yeoman, Editor Andrew Weisblum, and composer Alexandre Desplat. The film looks and sounds remarkable, and somehow it doesn’t feel like it’s moving fast – although we can barely keep pace. The film can be compared to ordering a flight at your local distillery. Each flavor is tasty, but they may not add up to a full drink.

Wes Anderson has delivered another stylish, fun film to watch, and one that is endlessly entertaining. It may not have as many moments of laughter as some of his previous films, yet there are still plenty of sight gags, insider references, and light-heartedness bathed in nostalgia – even if it’s not quite as whimsical. Shot in the French town of Angouleme, the visuals are as impressive as any you’ll find, serving up a collage of time, caricatures, color, and topics.

Opening nationwide in theaters on October 29, 2021

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HOLIDAYS AT ALL COST (2021)

October 27, 2021

Austin Film Festival 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. After watching the trailer, I settled in for what I expected to be a traditional French farce, always a welcome relief from the usual festival heaviness. While I can’t say the trailer is misleading – all of the scenes are present in the movie – it’s just that writer-director Stevan Lee Mraovitch has delivered more of a dark comedy with a message than a laugh-a-minute joy ride in his feature film debut.

Oumar Diaw (brilliantly) stars as Frederic, a technology installer who works for a boss that never hesitates to take advantage of Fred’s natural passivity. Set to take his lovely wife Fanny (Donia Eden) and young son Max (Swann Nguma-Torre) on the first family vacation in years, Fred runs into money issues thanks to a broken promise from his boss. Rather than come clean and disappoint his wife, Fred cuts a deal with his childhood friend Jean-Luc (Benjamin Garnier) who runs a luxury resort in the area where they all grew up together. Frederic agrees to work for Jean-Luc in exchange for the price of a room.

It becomes apparent to us (not to Fred) that Jean-Luc’s ulterior motives include winning back the girl of his dreams … Fanny. So the evil Jean-Luc initiates an elaborate plan, not for world domination, but to keep Fred occupied with increasingly outrageous pranks, so that Fanny will be forced to spend time with Jean-Luc. The sabotage of a relationship is a bit painful to watch because we really like Frederic, and can’t much stand the sight of Jean-Luc.

There are some funny gags here, with the best being “Frozen Surfer” during yoga. “Digital nomad” becomes a nice catchphrase for those in today’s generation who carry little interest in excelling at an occupation. Vacation-gone-wrong movies are plentiful, but here it serves as the foundation for a story about relationships, friendship, selfishness, and self-worth. Filmed in the gorgeous countryside and beaches of the South of France, director Mraovitch has made quite an impact with his first film.

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FALLING FOR FIGARO (2021)

September 30, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. There aren’t many Opera singer-Romantic Comedies, so that alone made this one worth checking out. Writer-director Ben Lewin (THE SESSIONS, 2012) co-wrote the script with Allen Palmer (his first feature film) and cast the film perfectly, while also gifting us an inordinate amount of beautiful singing voices, as well as a uniquely picturesque setting in the Scottish Highlands.

Danielle Macdonald (PATTI CAKE$, 2017) stars as Millie, an American who has been living in London, and establishing herself as a highly successful fund manager. After an evening at the opera with her boyfriend (and co-worker) Charlie (Shazad Latif, “Penny Dreadful”), Millie makes a life-altering decision. Rather than accept a big promotion at work, she’s going to sacrifice her career and follow her dream of becoming an opera singer. Of course, as with most rom-coms, none of this really makes much sense. Rather than compare this to reality, it’s best to enjoy the fun parts (and there are plenty) and disregard the rest.

Those fun parts begin once Millie leaves London and lands in the Scottish Highlands. Her first comical interaction is with the proprietor of The Filthy Pig played by Gary Lewis (GANGS OF NEW YORK, 2002). This only pub in the village also serves as its only restaurant and motel. More zaniness ensues as Millie auditions for Megan Geoffrey-Bishop (a terrific Joanna Lumley, “Absolutely Fabulous”), a “retired” singing teacher who once made her own mark on the stage. Her only current pupil is Max (Hugh Skinner, LES MISERABLES, 2002), a local who has been training for years. Max and Millie have the same goal – qualify for the ‘Singer of Renowned’ competition. So we immediately know where this is headed … and sure enough, it does.

While much of the story focuses on the ‘will they or won’t they’ connection between Millie and Max, it’s Ms. Lumley who steals every scene she’s in. Her theory that opera singers must suffer is part of her curriculum for both of her students. At first we aren’t sure whether she’s just taking Millie’s money because she needs it, but that answer comes soon enough. The actual competition is packed with amazing singing voices, and the three-way love story follows many of the rom-com clichés – though we don’t seem to care because Millie and Max are so torn between their dream and each other, and Ms. Lumley just keeps cracking wise.

Of course we know that opera singers train most of their lives for competitions and stage roles, so it’s absurd to think that a fund manager can take a year off work and reach this level. But again, this isn’t about reality. No, this is about Millie singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” like you’ve never heard it before. It’s about “fish and chips without the vinegar”. It’s about not wanting to rent a room because the floor would need to be mopped. It’s about opening your heart and chasing a passion – following a dream. And we can all use a little of that right now.

In select theaters and on VOD beginning October 1, 2021

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