OLD (2021)

July 23, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. THE SIXTH SENSE (1999) and UNBREAKABLE (2000) created a movie bond with filmmaker M Night Shyamalan that will always exist. In other words, I continue to go into each of his projects with hopeful expectations of another classic. Of course, some have been pretty good (SPLIT, 2016), while others are barely watchable (THE LAST AIRBENDER, 2010). His latest lands somewhere in the middle, but does feature a stunning beach setting (Dominican Republic) – one whose tropical beauty hides a sinister reality.

The film’s synopsis is captured in the trailer: tourists experience a mystifying and terrifying phenomenon while on a day trip to a gorgeous secluded beach. The director adapted the film from the 2010 graphic novel “Sandcastle”, written by Pierre-Oscar Levy and Frederick Peeters. Shyamalan specializes in one thing: big and creative ideas. He is a risk-taking filmmaker, but one not always focused on execution, coherence, or details. Especially awkward here is the dialogue. None of these characters talk like real people. Lending to the awkwardness is the attention given to each character’s name and occupation … except for the kids, where age is the significant data.

Due to the nature of the story (and the effects of the beach), the cast is significantly larger than the number of characters. We ride along with one family as they first approach the luxury resort. Insurance actuary Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his wife, museum curator Prisca (Vicky Krieps) are vacationing with their 11 year old daughter Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and 6 year old son Trent (Nolan River). The couple clearly have a strained relationship and appear headed for a break-up. Encouraged by the resort manager to spend the day at a secret remote beach, they are joined by Charles (Rufus Sewell), a surgeon, his calcium-deficient trophy wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee), their young daughter Kara, and the doctor’s elderly mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant). Another couple is there as well, nurse Jarin (Ken Leung) and his wife Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a psychologist. Already at the beach when they arrive is rap star Mid-sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre), replete with bloody nose and the corpse of the woman who accompanied him.

It’s best not to go into specifics about the progression of things for these folks on the beach, but it can be noted that they frantically try to find a way back to the resort. When all attempts prove unsuccessful, that ridiculous dialogue fills in many of the gaps for us, though you should know the science doesn’t hold up … think of it as fantasy instead. As their day at the beach moves forward, other actors take over: Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie are teenage Trent and Maddox, Eliza Scanlen is Kara, and later, Emun Elliott and Embeth Davidtz become Trent and Maddox. It becomes frustrating for viewers as the professions are emphasized: Guy spouts statistics at every turn, Prisca discloses she’s not a pathologist, and Patricia attempts to get everyone to bring their feelings to group. Ugh.

Despite the many missteps and the overall mess of characterizations, Shyamalan (who also appears as the driver who drops them at the beach) does serve up a creative idea – one that will likely get viewers questioning their own mortality and how best to spend time. Mental illness is addressed in a crude manner with Rufus Sewell (a fine actor) bearing the brunt of a poor script, while physical afflictions and the effects of age come off a bit better. The strange looking woman serving up custom cocktails at the resort is Francesca Eastwood (Clint’s daughter), and Shyamalan’s patented plot twist ending does make sense and even has a contemporary feel to it.

Opening in theaters on July 23, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


JOE BELL (2021)

July 22, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Given his track record, Mark Wahlberg is not the guy that first comes to mind for a message movie about tolerance and inclusion. On the other hand, he’s perfectly cast as a macho Oregon dad struggling with his own prejudices when his son comes out as gay. Director Marcus Green (MONSTERS AND MEN, 2018) is working with a script co-written by Diana Ossana and the late, great Larry McMurtry, and though the film touches on some topics of conflict, it does so in a manner that plays comfortably for mass audiences. Mr. McMurtry passed away earlier this year, and the two co-writers shared an Oscar for their screenplay of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2015).

Wahlberg plays Joe Bell, and the film is based on the true story of Bell’s decision to walk across America – from Oregon to New York City in honor of his son Jadin (played well by Reid Miller). Oregon was home, but the Big Apple was where Jadin dreamed of living – a place more accepting of him. We witness some of the relentless bullying and abuse Jadin endured at school and the Principal’s appalling reaction, and we also see his home life: a dad who tries to avoid the issue and a loving mother (Connie Britton) who is not a woman of action.

While on his tribute walk, Joe stops at schools and community centers to tell the story of Jadin and express the importance of kindness and tolerance. Of course, this is also a time for some personal emotional cleansing for Joe … an act of atonement, if you will. There is a twisty plot device that is evidently supposed to be a surprise, but there was no need to make it such – it would have still worked just fine. One of the best sequences occurs when Joe crosses paths with a small town Sheriff played by Gary Sinise. It’s a cathartic few minutes that allows a fine actor (Sinise) to play the role of a father unloading the burden of guilt.

The past few years have inspired many of us to face our personal prejudices and perspectives, and this message movie reminds us that homophobia still exists and often overpowers the kindness of others. Jadin’s essay describing being “surrounded by people that hate you” probably hits home for far too many.

Opening in theaters on July 23, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


SETTLERS (2021)

July 22, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. With billionaires building their own rockets and blasting off into space, a film about the colonization of Mars doesn’t seem as far-fetched as it did in TOTAL RECALL (1990), or even THE MARTIAN (2015). In his first feature film, writer-director Wyatt Rockefeller minimizes the science-fiction aspects and focuses more on human nature.

A family of three is making their way day-to-day in a compound. Father Reza (Jonny Lee Miller, “Elementary”), mother Ilsa (Sofia Boutella, THE MUMMY, 2017), and daughter Remy (an excellent Brooklyn Prince, THE FLORIDA PROJECT, 2017) have their own greenhouse to grow food, and even (somehow) raise their own pig. We learn they are living in some type of bubble which allows them to breathe without masks, and they have a water supply, though that’s one of countless things that are never explained.

One morning the family awakens to find “LEAVE” scrawled across their kitchen window. It turns out Jerry (Ismael Cruz Cordova, “Ray Donovan”), has returned to reclaim what he says was his family’s home. A battle ensues, and Jerry invites Ilsa and Remy to stay – as long as they don’t bother (or attack) him. Everyone seems to have weapons, though again, we never learn “what’s out there” as a threat.

Remy befriends a droid that resembles WALL-E. She names it Steve. Steve mostly lurks until one crucial scene which seems to come out of nowhere. This is after the ‘last man and last woman’ scenario is introduced with Nell Tiger Free (“Servant”) playing older Remy. Director Rockefeller filmed in South Africa which proves to be an effective stand-in for the surface of Mars, but just leaves too many questions unanswered for this viewer. The human nature aspect is well-handled. We hear Reza tell Remy, “We left Earth because we wanted more.” And later, “Someday it will be just like Earth”, the latter statement seemingly contradicting the first. However, the actions and attitudes of people on Mars seem to be all too similar to Earth’s inhabitants – and that’s a shame.

Opening in Theaters and On Demand on July 23, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


@ZOLA

July 1, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. As far as I can tell, this is the first feature film based on an actual Twitter thread. Writer-director Janicza Bravo (LEMON, 2017) works with co-writers Jeremy O Harris and the real life Zola, A’Ziah King to mold the viral 148 Tweets (#TheStory) from 2015 into a somewhat coherent film that may just provide a bit more insight into the social media world than we’d prefer in one sitting. A24 movie studio proves yet again their original, creative, and unique films are unapologetically outside the industry norm … and they are generating quite a loyal following because of it.

Taylour Paige (Dussy Mae in MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM, 2020) stars as Zola, a waitress with perfect certain “features” according to one of her customers. Zola and Stefani (played by Riley Keough, Elvis’ granddaughter who continues to build a strong and diverse resume, including a standout performance in AMERICAN HONEY, 2016), have an instant connection, and the next day they are off on a road trip to Florida to make big bucks dancing at exotic clubs. Accompanying them are X (Colman Domingo, Cutler in MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM, 2020), and Derrek (Nicolas Braun, “Succession”), Stefani’s doofus boyfriend.

Be forewarned: this is not the zany female buddy comedy the trailer teases. It’s a dark, twisted comedy laced with dangerous situations and violence. While Zola was led to believe this was a dancing trip for real cash, it turns out X is really Stefani’s pimp, and though Zola stands firm in not taking the sex for cash route, she’s prevented from leaving by a forceful X, no longer the charmer she first encountered. Zola’s wise-to-the-world ways allows her to assist Stefani in upping her cash flow, but things go wrong when Derrek socializes outside the group.

After the infamous Twitter thread, “Rolling Stone” writer David Kushner published an article entitled, “Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga ever Tweeted”. This is an alternate universe to many of us, though it’s pulled from the “pages” of today’s online culture. Much of the dialogue is in Twitter-speak, and the new Tweet ding is used to emphasize certain spoken lines (think rim shots). Director Bravo instills the “B-word” at the same pace that Tarantino uses the F-word, and it should be noted that both actresses are terrific. Ms. Keough will likely make you laugh, while simultaneously making you uncomfortable. It’s a case study in cultural appropriation – especially her dialect, which is purposefully offensive. We aren’t accustomed to seeing this type of humor these days, but Keough is to be commended for going all in. Ms. Paige’s performance is much different, but no less impactful as her Zola tries to make the best of a horrible situation.

This is a wild story with characters I can only hope you don’t recognize from your own life. It begs the question, what kind of relationships arise from social media? We go a bit deeper on Zola, but really we don’t know much about these people. They are as deep as social media allows, while also serving up a warning to those who might somehow believe internet interactions are anonymous and harmless.

Now showing in theaters nationwide.

WATCH THE TRAILER


LANSKY (2021)

June 24, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. If asked, the vast majority of movie lovers would name THE GODFATHER (1972), THE GODFATHER II (1974), and GOODFELLAS (1990) as the quintessential mafia movies. Sure, there are dozens of others, but that mob triumvirate has ruled the roost for many years. It’s doubtful writer-director Eytan Rockaway ever gave one moment of thought that his second feature, written from a story by his father, author Robert Rockaway, might join the ranks of those top three, but that doesn’t prevent it from being a quite interesting tale based on true events.

Sam Worthington (AVATAR, 2009) stars as David Stone, a writer who had some success a few years back with his Kennedy biography. Since then, he’s struggled in both his personal and professional life. In 1981 when an elderly Meyer Lansky (Harvey Keitel) contacts him to write the true Lansky story, David jumps at the opportunity, seeing it as a solution to his many problems. The two men meet at a Miami diner that Lansky frequents. These diner meetings form the structure of the story, and director Rockaway uses flashbacks to the 1940’s to “show” us what Lansky is telling his biographer from the booth.

John Magaro plays the younger Lansky, a man who is remarkably good with numbers and calm, yet forceful, in his demeanor. Lansky has partnered with Ben “Bugsy” Siegel (David Cade), who provides some muscle and flamboyance that Lansky lacks. We see the development of their business, and how Lansky’s shrewd business acumen leads to a connection with Lucky Luciano, as well as providing the government with intelligence during the war. Lansky’s story to David glosses over the bootlegging and other revenue streams to concentrate on gaming, which of course, is now legal in many states.

The supporting cast includes Minka Kelly as David’s fling at the motel, AnnaSophia Robb as Lansky’s wife Anne, Shane McRae as Lucky Luciano, and David James Elliott as the FBI Agent obsessed with solving the long-dead Lansky case and locating the $350 million supposedly hidden away. As you might expect, the story bounces from Miami to New York City to Cuba (a stunning Colonial Hotel in Havana) to Vegas to Geneva and even Israel, where Lansky attempted, unsuccessfully, to live out his life.

Lansky’s biggest impact was facilitating the connection between the Italian, Irish, and Jewish mafia at a time when so such bond existed. We twice hear him answer, “I have no knowledge on the subject”, when questioned about organized crime. On his death in 1983, Lansky had no convictions – all charges had been dropped. A doctor’s diagnosis of terminal lung cancer led him to reach out to an author so that his story could be told. We don’t learn much about “Murder, Inc.” but we do understand Lansky’s commitment to “control the game”. Rockaway has delivered an intriguing profile of an enigma from inside the mafia … and screen vet Keitel makes it all believable.

In Select Theaters & On Demand June 25, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


12 MIGHTY ORPHANS (2021)

June 10, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Ty Roberts is a native Texan and Austin-based director committed to bringing Texas tales to the big screen. His previous film was THE IRON ORCHARD (2018) on wildcatting, and this time he tackles the 2007 Jim Dent novel, “Twelve Mighty Orphans: The Inspiring True Story of the Mighty Mites who Ruled Texas Football”. The film is inspired by the true events of a legendary Texas coach and his development of a football program at an orphanage, the Masonic Home and School in Fort Worth. Set in 1938 as the nation is still rebounding from the Great Depression and the area has earned the label, “the Dust Bowl”, the film opens at halftime of the state championship game, as the Mighty Mites limp into the locker room, battered from the first half.

The film immediately flashes back to 6 months earlier as Rusty Russell (Luke Wilson) and his wife Juanita (Vinessa Shaw) arrive at the orphanage. Both are teachers and Rusty is also tasked with starting a football program from scratch. “Scratch” may be too nice of description, as the home has no field and none of the boys have ever played the sport. If that’s not enough challenge, there is also Frank Wynn (Wayne Knight), the abusive director of the orphanage who undermines Rusty at every turn and uses his wooden paddle as a demented form of discipline. This was a different era, and it’s heartbreaking to see how orphans were treated not just as castaways from society, but also as free labor so Wynn could personally profit.

Rusty Russell’s commitment is a key to the story, and although he suffers from post-war PTSD (with flashbacks), he brings structure and humanity and teamwork to a group of boys who had none. We learn that Rusty was also an orphan, and this helps us understand why this mission was so important to him and Juanita. Martin Sheen appears to be having fun co-starring as Doc Hall, an alcoholic who not only serves as Rusty’s assistant, but who also served the home for 30 years without ever taking a paycheck. It’s Doc Hall who was responsible for luring Rusty to the home, and he’s very supportive of building the program for the boys.

The sports movie clichés are numerous, but this is the kind of story and movie that we desperately want to like – an inspirational story with clearly defined good people and villains. Boys stigmatized by society goes beyond the underdogs against-all-odds. Although they had some success on the field, the real message here is self-respect and education for those who felt superior. Co-writer Lane Garrison plays the arrogant coach of the powerhouse Polytechnic, and though the performance is a bit of a caricature, his attitude speaks volumes about the mentality of the times. Oscar winner Robert Duvall (now 90 years old) makes a brief appearance as a Freemason, who was also an orphan.

Historical significance resonates here as “Fort Worth Star-Telegram” publisher (and early Fort Worth mover and shaker) Amon Carter (played here by Treat Williams) was so enamored with the “Mighty Mites” that he got President Franklin Roosevelt to intercede on behalf of the boys when controversy struck. The Masonic home closed in 2005, but its impact remains today. One of the featured players on the team was Hardy Brown (Jake Austin Walker) who went on to serve in the Marines, and later play professional football. Rusty Russell went on to coach at SMU, and became a legend thanks to his creation of the “spread offense”.

The film was co-written by director Ty Roberts, Lane Garrison, and Kevin Meyer, and the script takes some liberties with history and the source material from author Jim Dent. Mr. Dent also wrote the 1999 book “The Junction Boys”, and spent many years as a sportswriter covering the Dallas Cowboys. On a personal level, he faced serious consequences from his run-in with the law over his many DWI convictions, and remains incarcerated today. The post-credit sequence features actual photographs and a real life update of each of the players and the key people involved. Sure, some of the acting is a bit stilted, the dialogue often unnatural, and the football sequence heavily edited, but we do find the story uplifting at a time when such stories are quite welcome.

The film opens in Texas on June 11, 2021 and then on June 18 nationwide.

***NOTE: Former Texas Longhorns defensive standout Breckyn Hager appears in the film, and thanks to one of my favorite Austinites for the heads-up

WATCH THE TRAILER


HOLLER (2021)

June 10, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Life in the Midwest rustbelt is often portrayed in movies, but rarely with the authenticity displayed in the first feature film from writer-director Nicole Riegel. These are hard-working folks who maintain hope and keep pushing through the challenges brought on by the collapse of the factory world that left generations in its wake. It’s a spinoff of Ms. Riegel’s own 2015 short film of the same name, and the story is inspired by her own upbringing in Ohio.

Jessica Barden stars as Ruth, a very bright high school senior who is struggling along with her dropout older brother Blaze (Gus Halper) to make ends meet while mom (Pamela Adlon, the voice of Bobby on “King of the Hill”) is in jail due to opioids. Dad is out of the picture. As smart as she is, Ruth is teetering on the line of graduation since she misses so much school time while hustling the streets with her brother looking for aluminum cans to redeem, or any other way to make a few bucks. Despite their lack of funds, Blaze submitted a college application for Ruth without her knowing, and now that she’s been accepted, money becomes the focus.

Desperation leads to poor decisions, and soon Ruth and Blaze are working for Hark (Austin Amelio, “The Walking Dead”) the owner of a local metal scrap yard. At night, brother and sister join the crew for illegal scrapping at closed factories. It’s dangerous work, but the pay is good. The dynamic between older brother Blaze and younger sister Ruth is interesting. He realizes his future looks something like what he’s doing now – scratching and clawing for everything. But he sees that Ruth has a path to a brighter future and he strives to keep her focused on that.

Family is key here, and Ruth struggles with how best to deal with her mother. It takes Aunt Linda (Becky Ann Baker, A SIMPLE PLAN, 1998) to explain how Ruth’s mother is a victim of the medical profession over-prescribing the pain killers that caused the downfall. In a town that’s slowly dying (plants closing), and folks fighting to stay out of poverty, this situation is all too common.

Jessica Barden is memorable from her turn as the friend in HANNA (2011) and from THE END OF THE F***ING WORLD (2017), but this could be a star-making role for her. She is outstanding in much the way Jennifer Lawrence was in WINTER’S BONE (2010), although this movie isn’t quite at that level. It’s a star turn for Ms. Barden and an impressive debut for director Riegel, who shot in 16mm film – a rarity for indie films. The story and characters are never quite as bleak as what we expect, though the ending is a bit too predictable … and we are happy for it. You might want to see this one if for no other reason than it’s a likely career turning point for both Jessica Barden and Nicole Riegel.

OPENS IN SELECT THEATERS AND ON DEMAND/DIGITAL ON FRIDAY, JUNE 11, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953) Revisited

June 5, 2021

***This is an entry into my “Revisited” series where I re-watch a classic movie and then write about it (SPOILERS included) – not with a traditional review, but rather a general discussion of the movie, those involved, and its impact or influence.

Greetings again from the darkness. “Entertaining” isn’t the usual description we think of for movies set during the Pearl Harbor attack. The Japanese-United States joint effort for TORA! TORA! TORA! (1970) probably did the best cinematic job re-creating the actual attack, and then there is whatever Michael Bay attempted to accomplish with his much-maligned PEARL HARBOR (2001). Each of those movies won an Oscar – Best Visual Effects for the former and Best Sound Editing for the latter, though neither could come close to the eight Oscars (on 13 nominations), the star power, or the entertainment value of Columbia Pictures’ 1953 classic FROM HERE TO ETERNITY.

The film won the Best Picture Oscar over ROMAN HOLIDAY, JULIUS CAESAR, SHANE, and THE ROBE, and director Fred Zinnemann won the Best Director Oscar over Billy Wilder (STALAG 17), George Stevens (SHANE), William Wyler (ROMAN HOLIDAY), and Charles Walters (LILI). Mr. Zinnemann’s career resulted in 4 Oscars (including A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, 1966), and along the way he also picked up nominations for directing the classic HIGH NOON (1952) and JULIA (1977), plus the musical OKLAHOMA! (1955). He was married to his wife Renee for 60 years, and had the good fortune of directing the feature film debuts of Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando and Meryl Streep.

Daniel Taradash won the Oscar for adapting James Jones’ 1952 novel for the screen. Mr. Taradash, a Harvard Law School graduate, also wrote the screenplays for PICNIC (1955) and MORITURI (1965), and later served as President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1970-73. Novelist James Jones served in WWII and was present when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. His novel “The Thin Red Line” was later turned into a 1998 film starring Sean Penn and Nick Nolte, and directed by Terrence Malick.

The first image most think of when this film is mentioned is the iconic kiss on the beach between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, as the ocean waves crash around them. Most war movies don’t have a smooch as their most memorable moment, though to be fair, until the bombing, this film is mostly about the daily lives of those living on and around Hickam Field in Hawaii in the days leading up to December 7, 1941.

Let’s dive into the overwhelming star power that’s on display for two hours. Montgomery Clift stars as Robert E. Lee Prewitt, a brooding and sensitive soldier who quickly gains the reputation as being hard-headed. Prewitt is a top-notch boxer and bugler who refuses to do either, focusing instead on being the best soldier he can be. Monty had a remarkable, yet all too brief career. He scored four Oscar nominations even though he only made 18 films. His early career was spent on stage leading to an intensity that he never lost while acting, and is even apparent in his film debut with John Wayne in John Ford’s RED RIVER (1948). A horrible car crash in 1956 required facial reconstruction surgery, and it’s said that his friend Elizabeth Taylor saved his life at the scene. His long time struggles with alcohol and drugs, as well as the pressure of keeping his homosexuality hidden, took a toll on his health. In 1961, Monty turned in a brief yet staggeringly effective performance in JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG. Clift would be dead less than 5 years later at age 45.

Prewitt’s only real buddy in the film is Angelo Maggio, played by Frank Sinatra, in a role that won him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor over Eddie Albert (ROMAN HOLIDAY), Robert Strauss (STALAG 17), and two actors from SHANE, Jack Palance and Brandon De Wilde. At this point, Sinatra’s singing career was in a downturn, and it’s rumored that the “horse head” scene in THE GODFATHER was influenced by Sinatra’s mob connections getting him cast in this film. Of course, Sinatra went on to become one of the all-time great entertainers. Sinatra’s Maggio is a friendly guy who gets labeled “Tough Monkey” by the film’s most obnoxious and intimidating bully, and his dying scene is terrific and leads to his friend Prewitt’s heart-breaking rendition of “Taps”.

Monty went head-to-head in the Best Actor category with Burt Lancaster, although the Oscar went to William Holden for STALAG 17. Richard Burton (THE ROBE) and Marlon Brando (JULIUS CAESAR) were the other two nominees in the category. In a prolific career that spanned six decades, Lancaster would go on to three more nominations, winning for ELMER GANTRY (1961). Baseball fans recall Lancaster in one of his last roles as “Moonlight” Graham in FIELD OF DREAMS (1989), and he also played Wyatt Earp in GUNFIGHT AT THE OK CORRAL (1957), while famously turning down the role in BEN-HUR that ultimately went to Charlton Heston. Lancaster was at the center of one of my favorite “offbeat” movies, THE SWIMMER (1968), and having worked in a circus when he was younger, he performed many of his own stunts in TRAPEZE (1956). A 1991 stroke robbed Lancaster of his distinctive voice, and he passed away in 1994 at age 80. His son, Bill Lancaster, wrote the screenplay to BAD NEWS BEARS (1976), based on his own experiences being coached by Burt. In this film, Burt portrayed Sgt Milton Warden, a model of military efficiency, who has a soft spot for Monty’s Prewitt and all the rigors he’s being put through.

Burt’s Sgt Warden also happens to be having an affair with the base commander’s wife, Karen Holmes, played by Deborah Kerr. This affair leads to that iconic sandy beach kiss mentioned previously. She received one of her six Oscar nominations for this film, but lost to Audrey Hepburn in ROMAN HOLIDAY. The other nominees were Ava Gardner (MOGAMBO), Lesli Caron (LILI), and Maggie McNamara (THE MOON IS BLUE). Ms. Kerr was presented an Honorary Oscar in 1994, and is best remembered for starring in THE KING AND I (1956) opposite Yul Brenner (her singing voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon), starring opposite Cary Grant in AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER (1957), and as the nun in BLACK NARCISSUS (1947). Her picture is frequently visible on her husband’s desk at the base, and she so vexes the stoic Sgt Warden that Burt gets the film’s best line: “I’ve never been so miserable in my entire life since I met you.”

Donna Reed won the Best Supporting Actress (in her only nomination) for playing Prewitt’s love interest, Lorene/Alma, a hostess at The New Congress Club. The other nominees were Grace Kelly (MOGAMBO), Thelma Ritter (PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, a film noir gem), Geraldine Page (HONDO), and Marjorie Rambeau (TORCH SONG). Ms. Reed had her own hit TV series, “The Donna Reed Show” that ran from 1958-66, and of course, she will live forever in cinematic infamy thanks to her performance as the beloved Mary in the Christmas classic, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946). Her final acting gig was taking over for an ailing Barbara Bel Geddes as Miss Ellie in the hit TV series “Dallas”. Sadly, after one season, Ms. Reed passed away due to pancreatic cancer at age 64. In the film, she plays perfectly off of Montgomery Clift’s sensitive Prewitt, and despite her attraction to him, she holds firm to a “proper plan” for her life.

Now any respectable movie lover would be in awe with a cast that includes Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, and Donna Reed. But this is no ordinary movie, and neither is the supporting cast. Philip Ober stars as Captain Dana Holmes, the base commander and husband to Kerr’s Karen, and the one putting a bit too much emphasis on getting Prewitt back in the boxing ring. You’ll recall Mr. Ober as Lester Townsend in Hitchcock’s classic NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959). He was also married to Vivian Vance (Ethel in “I Love Lucy”) for 18 years. George Reeves is in a handful of scenes as one of the soldiers. Mr. Reeves played the Man of Steel in more than 100 episodes of the 1950’s series “Adventures of Superman”. This was the film that was supposed to make him a movie star, but many of his scenes got cut. The most memorable of the supporting cast is “Fatso”, the annoying and sadistic Sergeant of the Guard, played with gusto by Ernest Borgnine (Oscar winner for MARTY, 1956). It’s the violent action of Fatso that leads Prewitt to seek revenge for his friend Maggio. Jack Warden plays Cpl Buckley, and Warden is another actor whose career spanned six decades. He was seemingly everywhere in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s and was nominated for two Oscars in movies starring Warren Beatty. Mickey Shaunessey plays Sgt Leva, and you’ll recall him as Hunk in Elvis’ third movie, JAILHOUSE ROCK (1957). Other familiar faces include Claude Akins in his film debut, Joseph Sargent (the director of THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, 1974, and JAWS: THE REVENGE, 1987), Mary Carver (“Simon and Simon”), Willis Bouchey, Harry Belaver, Barbara Morrison, and Alvin Sargent (Oscar winning screenwriter of JULIA and ORDINARY PEOPLE). Supposedly, there is even a cameo from James Jones, the author of the novel on which this film is based, though I’ve never been able to spot him.

If you’ve seen this film, you already know it is much more than a stream of terrific and well respected actors. It’s a story of romance, self-determination, military machismo and brotherhood, friendship, and a historic and tragic attack on America … complete with the initial chaos that morning. There are some terrific scenes – like the first time Lancaster and Kerr meet at her house. There are some terrific lines – like when Prewitt says, “A man should be what he could be”. There are some subtle touches – like the wall calendar (Dec 6) next to Lancaster, or the “Pearl Harbor” street sign. Comedic effects are infused through the energy of Sinatra, and there is even a nice bit of trivia, as a large wicker chair reappears years later in “The Addams Family”.

From a technical aspect, the film is also quite an accomplishment. Renowned cinematographer Burnet Guffey won the Oscar, and he also won for BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967), plus he had three other nominations. He was the DP on Nicholas Ray’s superb film noir A LONELY PLACE (1950), a personal favorite of Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame (and me). Film Editor William A Lyon won an Oscar for this film and PICNIC (1955), and edited more than 100 films during a 35 year career. John P Livadary won one of his 3 Oscars (plus numerous technical achievement awards) for Best Sound, and this was one of 5 Oscar nominations in a 7 year span for composer George Duning.

Late in the film, Country Music Hall of Fame singer-songwriter-guitarist Merle Travis appears and sings his song, “Re-enlistment Blues”. Travis also wrote “Sixteen Tons”, which became a number one hit for Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1955. In 1979, a 3-part TV mini-series “From Here to Eternity” was directed by Buzz Kulik (BRIAN’S SONG, 1971) and featured a cast with Natalie Wood, William Devane, Kim Basinger, Peter Boyle, and even an appearance by Andy Griffith. If nothing else, the mini-series proved just how strong James Jones’ characters and story were.

Over the years some have complained about having the attack on Pearl Harbor as the backdrop for a movie, rather than the centerpiece. However, it’s the human aspect that makes the attack so meaningful and powerful. Even though we as viewers feel the impending doom throughout the film, by the time the attack occurs, we know these folks and it becomes an attack on our country and our friends … which is exactly what it was. Director Zinnemann and the talented cast made certain that we were involved, not just along for the ride. The film is a true classic and it holds up well almost 70 years later.

WATCH THE TRAILER


UNDINE (2021)

June 3, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. German filmmaker Christian Petzold has a track record of creating thought-provoking, intelligent, and ambitious films such as BARBARA (2012) and TRANSIT (2018). This time out he re-teams his TRANSIT co-stars Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski in a film that’s more fable or fairy tale than conventional storytelling. If forced to label, we might go with Fantasy-Romance-Drama-Mystery, which really means the film doesn’t easily fit into a known genre.

The film opens with a very uncomfortable break-up scene between Johannes (Jacob Matschentz) and Undine (Ms. Beer). When he says they are done, she responds, “If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you. You know that.” While researching the name Undine, I stumbled upon the 1811 German fairy tale of a water nymph Friedrich de la Motte Fouquet, which clearly inspired Petzold. The story has some similarities to “The Little Mermaid”, itself a Danish fairy tale originally written by Hans Christian Anderson. It helps to know all of this upfront to prevent some of the frustration that goes with deciphering what is real and what is imagined.

As one would imagine, water is a recurring element throughout – beginning with Undine’s chance and unusual café meet-cute with Christoph (Mr. Rogowski). The two find themselves attracted and connected after being drenched. Christoph is an industrial diver, so water is a part of his life … as is ‘Big Guenther’, the legendary giant catfish he spots while on a job. Undine is a historian who holds sessions for tourists during which she recounts the architectural evolution and urban sprawl of Berlin over the past centuries, by utilizing scale models of the different eras. We also learn that “Berlin” means marsh, or a dry place in the marsh … yet another water-related aspect.

Ms. Beer, who was so good in FRANTZ (2016) and NEVER LOOK AWAY (2018) continues her fine work, and reuniting with her TRANSIT co-star, Mr. Rogowski (VICTORIA, 2015) works out beautifully, as they have a nice rapport. Mr. Petzold’s film has a supernatural element and is dreamlike at times, and though I’ve used the “fairy tale” description, it’s clearly a very high concept film for grown-ups … and there is enough humor (“Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees) to offset the doomed relationships and Undine’s return to her natural element. It’s quite a trip for those who are up for it.

In theaters and On Demand June 4, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


SPIRIT UNTAMED (2021, animated)

June 1, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Any kids that watched Dreamworks’ original SPIRIT: STALLION OF THE CIMARRON (2002) are now at least in their mid-20s and many likely have kids of their own. That original film featured old school animation, and provides a nice comparison for today’s computerized “drawing”. However, from a story and character perspective this is less a sequel to that film, and more a spinoff of the original Netflix series, of which there have been more than 50 episodes.

Lucky Prescott (voiced by Isabela Merced, Dora in DORA AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD, 2019) is a rambunctious youngster being attended to by her Aunt Cora (Oscar winner Julianne Moore) at the home of Lucky’s wealthy and now candidate-for-Governor grandfather. With no time for her shenanigans, grandpa ships off Lucky and Cora to be reunited with Lucky’s father, Jim Prescott (Jake Gyllenhaal). The two haven’t seen each other since Lucky’s mother died tragically ten years ago. On the train ride to Miradero, Lucky has a connection with a beautiful wild stallion she names Spirit. The two share a bond of wildness and independence, though soon enough Spirit is being held captive by mean-spirited horse wranglers.

Lucky and her father have an awkward reunion as he tries to keep her safe, unwilling to admit the free-spirited nature she shares with her mother, who once rode with the Los Caballeros, a local trick-riding team. Her mother’s clothes, boots, and posters open Lucky’s eyes to a world that feels like home. She befriends not just Spirit, but also a couple of local girls, Pru (Marsai Martin) and Abigail (Mckenna Grace), who are drawn to Lucky’s energy, but also recognize the danger she’s in going up against the evil wrangler (Walton Goggins).

What follows is an adventure with terrific visuals and enough action to keep the three and five year olds that I watched the film with glued to the screen. Heck Mountain and the Ridge of Regret seemed to be especially exciting for them, and I personally got a kick out of the importance of math (a word problem) in keeping Lucky on track. The film clocks in under 90 minutes, which is just right for most kids. The songs (Taylor Swift sings the trailer song) didn’t seem to make much impression, but the kid characters did. From a grown-up perspective, it’s hard to miss the fact that the adult males aren’t the best role models, and even Abigail’s young brother Snips (Lucian Perez) spends most of his time wreaking mischievous trouble. However, the lack of other political messages was a relief, and female empowerment in youngsters is always a welcome story line.

The film is co-directed by Elaine Bogan and Ennio Torreson. Writing credits go to John Fusco (the original Spirit film), Aury Wallington (the TV series) and Kristin Hahn and Katherine Nolfi. The all-star voice cast is a nice complement to the visuals (especially the mountains and clouds), and the message about independence and finding one’s own way in life. It should also be noted that the film is rated PG, not G.

Opens in theaters on Friday June 4, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER