THIRTEEN LIVES (2022)

August 4, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. It is 2018 and a group of boys have just finished soccer practice. After some motivational words from their coach, the boys start joking around with one of their teammates who has a birthday party slated for later that day.  Boys being boys, they decide to bike over the local cave for some pre-party exploring. Their coach tags along to keep an eye on them. All of that sounds innocent enough until we realize this is the Tham Luang cave, and they don’t realize Thailand’s monsoon season is about to arrive early and with full force.

The film is directed by Oscar winner Ron Howard, who is adept at mainstream storytelling as evidenced by APOLLO 13 (1994), A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001), and CINDERELLA MAN (2005). The script was penned by William Nicholson (GLADIATOR, 2000) and Don MacPherson (THE AVENGERS, 1998), and tells the all-too-true story of the daring rescue mission that most of recall following on news reports. When the boys were no-shows for the birthday party, parents and friends rushed to the cave to find the bicycles, but not the 12 boys and their coach. Immediately, rescue efforts began with Thai Navy SEALS rushing to the sight. Cave diving is a unique skill practiced by only a few, and is much different than the open water diving in which the SEALS excel.

British cave divers John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) and Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) are called in. Volanthen is the father of a son, and can’t help but empathize with what the parents must be going through, while Stanton is crusty old geezer who admits to not liking kids, while also understanding he’s one of the few on earth capable of making the necessary dive. Once the two men reach the stranded boys and coach, it becomes apparent that, as difficult and challenging it was to find the group, getting them out of the cave seems all but impossible. Death hung heavy over the operation of last resort, which included calling in Dr. Harry Harris (Joel Edgerton), a cave diving hobbyist, and more importantly, an anesthetist.

The diving scenes are expertly filmed by DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and underwater camera operator Tyrone Canning. The ever-present claustrophobia and risk of disaster underscores how courageous these men were. Director Howard offers up multiple perspectives: the government, the military, the divers, and the parents. We get very little from those trapped, but that adds to the tension. We get a feel for the entire operation as water is being pumped out of the cave, a water expert and volunteers frantically divert new rainwater into the rice fields, and political maneuvering occurs as the outgoing Governor (Sahajak Boonthankakit) is being set up as fall guy in case the efforts fail.

So many elements could have caused failure – low oxygen levels in the cave, a brisk current of water making diving more difficult, and obviously too much rainwater entering the cave would endanger the boys and the divers. The rescue mission lasted more than two weeks. It’s a disaster movie based on a real event, and follows up the excellent 2021 documentary, THE RESCUE. Evidently the dramatization is for those who don’t watch or have access to documentaries, and as strong as Howard’s movie is, there is simply no way for it to eclipse the documentary or what occurred in real time. At its best, the film offers tension and a reminder of what can be accomplished with collaboration.

Available on PRIME VIDEO beginning August 5, 2022

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LUCK (2022, animation)

August 4, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. “Find a penny, pick it up, and all day long you’ll have good luck.” That’s how the old saying goes, and it plays a prominent part in this first animated feature film from Skydance Animation. Directed by former Disney animation choreographer Peggy Holmes, and co-written by Kiel Murray (CARS, 2006) and writing partners Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, who teamed on the “Kung Fu Panda” franchise (as well as other projects), the film’s approach shifted when Skydance hired John Lasseter as head of animation. You may know Mr. Lasseter as the creative force behind Pixar and such groundbreaking films as TOY STORY (1995), but he’s also the guy that faced multiple accusations of workplace sexual impropriety and left Disney Pixar in late 2017. His Skydance hiring brought a change of director to the project, and was the reason Oscar winner Emma Thompson recused herself, replaced by Oscar winner Jane Fonda, who evidently had no such qualms about working for Lasseter.

Sam Greenfield (voiced by Eva Noblezada) is a klutzy 18-year-old who has ‘aged out’ of the foster home where she has lived. Never experiencing a ‘forever family’, Sam has maintained a positive outlook on life, despite what she sees as a never-ending streak of mishaps, accidents, unfortunate coincidences, and overall bad luck. She’s been very supportive of her younger friend Hazel (Adalyn Spoon), who holds out hope for adoption and is a collector of good luck charms … missing only a lucky penny. While bumbling through her first days as an independent woman, Sam finds a lucky penny, only to have bad luck strike (in the form of an automatic toilet) before she can deliver it to Hazel. And soon, Sam is chatting up a talking black cat (Simon Pegg) before they both enter a portal that whisks them to the Land of Luck.

It might seem odd that a black cat brough Sam her first taste of good luck, but as the story develops, so does their friendship. The Land of Luck is run by a dragon (Jane Fonda), and it’s her Captain (Whoopi Goldberg) that has it out for Bob … and the shenanigans that Sam brings to this new world certainly don’t help. The Land of Luck consists of leprechauns and four-leaf clovers, rabbits (none missing a foot), and pigs (never knew they were considered lucky). Down below the Land of Luck is the land of Bad Luck, and it’s Jeff the Unicorn (a terrific Flula Borg) who is charged with keeping the ‘right’ mixture of good luck and bad that gets sent to the land of humans. Yes, it’s all a bit convoluted, but what the movie gets right are the colorful visuals and the fun characters. Sam, Bob, the Dragon, and Jeff are all memorable in their own way.

It seems pretty clear that John Lasseter’s fingerprints are on the final film, as influences from INSIDE OUT and SOUL are quite evident … although those films are far superior. Where this one falls short is in memorable and pointed storytelling, always a strength of Pixar. We are left a bit befuddled on the takeaway message. Are our lives determined by a mixture of good and bad luck? What about making our own luck and forging our own path? Taking responsibility for our own actions and building our own network of friends and acquaintances seems every bit as important as whether the toast lands jelly-side up or down. Despite all that, it’s a pretty solid first animated feature from a studio likely to continue to improve as more projects are released – assuming they have the best of luck!

In select theaters and on AppleTV+ on August 5, 2022

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RESURRECTION (2022)

July 28, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. You never want to be the ex-partner who causes a panic attack for another person … especially after 22 years apart. Writer-director Andrew Semans puts a face to whatever you call the opposite of a dream partner or role model by casting Tim Roth as David Moore. However, before we first glimpse Roth’s David, we meet Margaret (Rebecca Hall), a woman who seems to have seized control over every part of her life. Her apartment is immaculate. Her business attire classy. Her glass-paned manager’s office efficient. Her married-co-worker-with-benefits at her beck and call. Her speedy runs through town keep her focused and fit. Her about-to-turn 18-year-old daughter is prepped for college. Yep, every aspect of Margaret’s life is under control.

Most of us know what happens when we are arrogant enough to believe we are in control – life usually slaps us with a dose of reality. For Margaret, the hints are there. A tooth found in her daughter’s wallet. A bike ride gone wrong. A glimpse across the room at a seminar. Another at the shopping mall. And finally, a confrontation in the park. This is how, after 22 years, David drops back into her life – a stalker creating turmoil, doubt, and anxiety. By this point, we’ve seen Margaret doling out advice to young intern Gwyn (Angela Wong Carbone) on how to handle a manipulative boyfriend – one she deems sadistic. Margaret appears strong and is counseling Gwyn on how to be strong and find someone worthy of her love. It’s this conversation, along with how Margaret hovers over her daughter Abbie (Grace Kaufman), that tells us Margaret has a past that’s not as perfect as her present.

Margaret’s backstory is told via a single-shot extended monologue where she recounts her relationship with David. It’s a stunning bit of acting by Ms. Hall, and filmmaking that not only explains the emotional baggage weighing down Margaret, but also makes her relatable. The moment is so taut with emotion that it ends with a kinda-sorta punchline from Gwyn. The first two acts build tension and hint at the bizarre nature of the long-ago David/Margaret relationship, and the “kindnesses” (twisted shows of loyalty and devotion) involved, but we simply can’t prepare ourselves for the ‘off-the-rails’ occurrences in the final act.

Wyatt Garfield’s cinematography and the muted colors of every scene and set, enhance the feeling of suspense and pending trauma. The film provides an excellent example of the long-reaching impact of mind-control, gaslighting, and sadistic manipulation as one person tries to control another. Since Margaret refuses to come clean with her daughter, Abbie is convinced her heading off to college is causing her mother’s breakdown. Instead, the psycho-thriller goes much deeper in showing just how Margaret’s vulnerability at a young age has stuck with her more than two decades later, and no amount of Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman” can break the spell … it requires action to stifle a diabolical jerk like David.

Ms. Hall is outstanding and believable in the role, and without her performance, the story would seem like a parody of the genre. She has quite a career of playing the victim, which seems to come naturally to her, as she’s proved in such films as CHRISTINE (2016). Mr. Roth is a multi-talented actor and doesn’t shy away from becoming a despicable face of evil. Both are ‘all-in’ for these characters, as is Grace Kaufman, who has worked consistently as an actor since the age of nine, mostly in TV roles. While I’m not a huge fan of the third act or the ending, there is plenty here to admire.

Opens in theaters on July 29, 2022

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VENGEANCE (2022)

July 28, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Cultural differences between various states are a big part of what gives the United States its flavor of diversity. The west coast is much different from the east coast, and both coasts contrast with the Midwest. Even within states, the differences can be fascinating. Think of upstate New York versus Manhattan, or the forests of Redding versus the glitz of Los Angeles. Perhaps no cultural comparison of states is more stark than that of the home pride of Texas versus the elitism of New York City. Writer-director-producer-lead actor BJ Novak seizes the opportunity to serve up these differences on a platter, while exposing a touch of reality and hope from both geographic areas.

You likely recall Mr. Novak as Ryan, the young staffer on the TV series “The Office” (in which he also had a hand in writing and directing some episodes). He quickly establishes that stereotypes will be hit head-on, and his self-awareness is at play in an opening sequence featuring Novak’s Ben Manalowitz and his bro-buddy John (a cameo by John Mayer). They improvise the douchey attitude of city-dwelling types whose interest in one-night gratifications overrides any deeply buried thoughts of a meaningful relationship with the opposite sex. Their constant use of “hundred percent” to express agreement in the latest lame point made by the other won’t be the last humorous sequence that also conveys a bit of disappointment in society.

One night, Ben receives a call from Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook) informing him that Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton) has died unexpectedly. Ty believes Ben was Abilene’s serious boyfriend, while Ben has to search his phone to discover that she was but one of many casual hook-ups. Roped into flying to Texas for the funeral, Ben stumbles through the eulogy by saying “she loved music”, a sentiment that endears him to her family. Despite having a coveted job as a writer for ‘The New Yorker’, Ben has his sights set on becoming a popular podcaster, and things fall into place when Ty discloses his conspiracy theory that, rather than die of an afterparty overdose in an oil field, his sister Abilene was murdered – perhaps by a Mexican cartel. Ben quickly pitches the idea to renowned podcast producer Eloise (Issa Rae), who green lights “Dead White Girl.” OK, so most of the humor here is a bit dark.

This much information is included in order to give a taste of the twists and turns that Novak has in store. Abilene’s family embraces him for staying to investigate, not understanding that his goal here is professional advancement rather than solving a case … a case that was closed by the local law enforcement – an incompetent and apathetic Mike and Dan. It’s Ben’s interaction with the family that are key to many of Novak’s points. Mother Sharon (J. Smith-Cameron, “Succession”) is quietly wise. Granny (Louanne Stephens, “Longmire”) is excessively direct. Abilene’s two sisters, Paris (Isabella Amara) and Jasmine (Dove Cameron), are respectively, a goth wanna-be filmmaker and a rudderless dreamer of becoming famous. The little brother, nicknamed “El Stupido” by the family, is played by newcomer Eli Bickel and he has a particular phobia that adds yet another touch.

Ben’s investigation finds him crossing paths with a local drug dealer named Sancholo (Zach Villa), who displays polar opposite personalities in front of his crew and then behind closed doors with Ben. Perhaps the most interesting character in the film is local record producer Quentin Sellers (Ashton Kutcher). Quentin is a smooth talker who impresses Ben with his philosophical meanderings, while donning attire that pops with flair. It’s also during the investigative stage that Ben learns all there is to learn about the sanctity of Whataburger for Texans, and how those in West Texas view the big cities of Dallas and Houston … again, more humor and truth.

My description of Novak’s film is ‘observational dramedy’. He utilizes the current political divisions in the country and blends it with the dominance and corruption of social media. By embracing stereotypes, he manages to pull back the curtain and expose the humanity that exists, as well as the darkness in some. The abrupt finale is startling as it seems to go against many of the points Novak makes throughout, but it’s clear he has a bright future as a filmmaker with something to say.

Opens in theaters July 29, 2022

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IT SNOWS ALL THE TIME (2022)

July 28, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Dementia and/or Alzheimer’s Disease have touched most every family by now; a fact that works to the detriment of this film from writer-director Jay Giannone and co-writers Erich Hover and Eric Watson. The opening screen informs us that it’s based on a true story, and in fact, it’s actually similar to countless family stories around the globe. Of course, this doesn’t minimize the stress and strain and frustration and pain that this causes for family and friends, and it likely helps some understand that they aren’t alone in this battle.

Dating back to the 1970 TV series “Mission: Impossible”, and her 1980’s movie work (VICTOR VICTORIA, the excellent CHOOSE ME, and classic CLUE), Lesley Ann Warren has long been one of my favorite actors, and here she again shows her feel for the material and each scene she’s a part of. She plays Anne, wife of Paul (an excellent Brett Cullen, Thomas Wayne in JOKER), and mother of three sons: Tony (played by director Jay Giannone), Art (Sterling Knight), and Jesse (writer Erich Hover). The story picks up with Jesse coming back home to Omaha for a visit after moving to Los Angeles for work and adventure. Dad is late picking him up from airport, but mom is thrilled to see Jesse. Brother Art recently dropped out of college, and brother Tony is just so busy, it’s hard for him to find time.

It’s immediately obvious to Jesse that something is off with dad, though everyone else just seems oblivious or accepting of his diminishing abilities each time dad answers with his favorite line, “I’m fine.” Denial is, of course, an easy initial response and obvious issue for loved ones, and mother Anne puts on an optimistic front with an ever-present smile … all while living in fear of losing her life partner. Once Jesse forces the family to discuss the situation and have dad properly evaluated, the finger-pointing commences, until acceptance can be found … all natural steps in the process.

Jesse tries to find common ground with his father via an old pickup truck and they take a fishing trip as a final hurrah. Again, all understandable reactions, while not necessarily being the wisest. There is nothing especially wrong with the film, although a stronger actor in the Jesse role could have helped, but mostly it plays like a film that should have been made 30 years ago when information on dementia was a bit more difficult to come by. Today, we look at this family and can’t help but judge them for not reacting sooner to keep the dad safe and reduce their own stress. Jesse’s relationship challenges (an underutilized Taryn Manning) seem misplaced and over-simplified, but we do witness what is possibly the worst on screen bar fight in the history of cinema. It’s the clips at the end that sober us up quickly … home movies of a vacant-eyed dad holding his first grandchild. Does he even know who he’s holding? We can’t be sure, but that’s the horror of this disease.

In select theaters and VOD on July 29, 2022

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MRS. HARRIS GOES TO PARIS (2022)

July 14, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Leslie Manville is one of those actors we take for granted. She’s so talented and versatile and typically “perfect” in the supporting roles she embodies. For us followers of British filmmaker Mike Leigh, we’ve been treated to numerous Manville performances over the years, but it’s likely she’s most widely recognized for her Oscar nominated performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s PHANTOM THREAD (2017), where she played Daniel Day-Lewis’ sister and business partner with an icy efficiency that added heft to a terrific film. This time, Ms. Manville embraces the lead and delivers a turn as a Mrs. Harris that we would all welcome into our lives.

Writer-director Anthony Fabian (SKIN, 2008) co-wrote the script with Carroll Cartwright (WHAT MAISIE KNEW, 2012), Keith Thompson, and Olivia Hetreed (GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING, 2003), and it is based on the 1958 Paul Gallico novel, “Mrs. ‘Arris goes to Paris”. There were four books in the series (leading to speculation of sequels), and Mr. Gallico also wrote “The Poseidon Adventure”, from which the 1972 disaster movie was adapted. We first meet Ada Harris (Manville) as she makes her rounds cleaning the homes of upper crest society. She rides the bus with her best friend Vi (Ellen Thomas), and occasionally meets up for an end of the day drink at the local pub, where Archie (Jason Isaacs) flirts a bit with her. Mrs. Harris has been biding her time for news of her beloved Air Force husband, MIA for 12 years. It’s a simple life she leads, but it’s one filled with optimism and hope and determination to live the right way.

The film shifts into ‘Adult Fairy Tale’ mode when one day Mrs. Harris falls hard for a couture Dior dress purchased by one of her clients. It’s a symbol of the beauty and opulence that has eluded Mrs. Harris her entire life. At that moment, she commits to saving enough money to purchase her own Dior dress … something that she has no rational use for. It’s mostly just a way for one ‘invisible’ woman to fulfill her own fantasy by experiencing a taste of dreamlike luxury … a rare pursuit of pleasure for this woman. A somewhat comical chain of events occurs in montage fashion as Mrs. Harris scrimps and saves (and gambles) her way to the monetary goal that puts the dress in play.

Once she arrives in Paris, the film becomes a fish-out-of-water story, as Mrs. Harris seemed to think she could stroll up to the House of Dior and have a dress wrapped up for the trip home. Claudine Colbert (the always great Isabelle Huppert), the gatekeeper of Dior, will have none of this … Dior is only for those who are deserving, not the riffraff. The scenes with the two women expertly highlight the personality differences. Mrs. Harris immediately begins to win people over with her nice demeanor. One of the keys is Marquis de Chassagne (Lambert Wilson), who takes a liking to her and invites her to view the new line as his guest. Another is Andre Fauvel (Lucas Bravo), the young accountant whose cutting-edge ideas are ignored by the “old school” stodgy types in charge. Lastly, there is supermodel Natasha (Alba Baptista), as the “Face of Dior”. She admires Mrs. Harris’ tenacity and kindness, which assists Natasha is discovering her true self.

Seeking to reach her own goal, Mrs. Harris ends up affecting the future of many others, as well as the future of the House of Dior. She has the kind of demeanor and spirit that draws in other people, while inspiring goodness. This is less about exposing elitism than applauding niceness. People are drawn to inherently nice people. As an adult fantasy, the film is likely to hold the most appeal for middle-aged women, and should be a perfect day at the theater for mothers and their adult kids.

Opening in theaters on July 15, 2022

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DON’T MAKE ME GO (2022)

July 14, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes a movie synopsis just screams “Lifetime Channel”. As an example: A road trip movie with a single father and his teenage daughter would be a typical beginning. Oh, and the father has been recently diagnosed with a brain tumor. And then, let’s have them track down the mother that abandoned the girl when she was a baby. Those pieces certainly lay the groundwork for a sappy melodrama meant only to induce tears from those who enjoy a good cry after a hard week of work. Fortunately and surprisingly, crisp writing, proficient filmmaking, and a talented cast work together to make this film something entirely different – a heartfelt saga grounded in real life feelings and moments.

Hannah Marks is an actress now making her mark as an up-and-coming director, while the script was written by Vera Herbert (“This is Us”). A perfect example of their grounded approach to these storylines comes near the film’s beginning when Max Park (John Cho, Star Trek franchise as Sulu, COLUMBUS, 2017) reacts to the doctor’s diagnosis of brain tumor and prognosis of one year to live. His movements strike us as real to the moment, rather than staged for effect. Max immediately rules out an option for a highly-risky surgery, choosing instead to bribe his 15-year-old daughter Wally (newcomer Mia Isaac) to take a road trip with him under the auspices of attending his 20-year college reunion. The bribe? Driving lessons.

Wally is a ‘normal’ teen who makes both good and bad decisions, while often getting frustrated at her ‘boring’ and restrictive parent. Max chooses not to tell Wally of his condition or his ultimate goal of reuniting her with her mother, in hopes that she will have family once he’s gone. The drive takes place in Max’s old wood-paneled Jeep Wagoneer, an example of how he has sacrificed to provide for her all these years. Another deeper sacrifice is revealed on the trip, and there are moments of disagreement and aggravation, but also special moments of bonding that can only happen when a parent and teenager communicate.

Since it was filmed in New Zealand during the pandemic, the staged road trip from California through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, and ultimately, Florida, does not offer the familiar landmarks along the way that we’d expect. But this story isn’t about cool pit stops or Bourbon Street (although we do get some killer shooting stars), it’s about a father understanding his daughter and that daughter understanding her father.

Excellent supporting work is provided by Kaya Scodelario (a mutual booty call buddy for Max), Josh Thomson (Max’s oldest friend), Otis Dhanji (Wally’s first crush), Stefania LaVie Owen (Wally’s friend), Jemaine Clement (as Max’s ex’s ex), and Jen Van Epps (as Wally’s mom). But make no mistake, this movie crackles thanks to the chemistry between Mr. Cho and Ms. Isaac. We believe in them, and though the ending is a bit creaky, their relationship is fully-formed in reality. When he counsels, “A good man will take you dancing”, we smile along with Wally, knowing this father wants only the best for her. The opening voiceover warns us, “You’re not going to like the way this story ends. But you’re going to like the story.” That turns out to be true, although it doesn’t stop the appreciation for all involved. This journey on the road turns into a journey in life.

Streaming on Prime Video beginning July 15, 2022

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WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING (2022)

July 14, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. This is the kind of movie that requires upfront disclosure: have you read the book or not? Since it was number one on New York Times best seller list for 2019 and 2020, and remained on the list for almost three years, it’s a legitimate question and likely the driving force behind Reese Witherspoon producing the film. I have not read the book and came in with only a few preconceived notions, and enough background information to make it more interesting, not less. This is director Olivia Newman’s first film since her debut FIRST MATCH (2018), and Lucy Alibar (BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, 2012) adapted the screenplay from the enormously popular novel written by Delia Owens.

Kya Clark is the youngest child of Ma (Ahna O’Reilly) and Pa (Garret Dillahunt). We get a quick glimpse at their strained existence in the marshes of Barkley Cove, North Carolina in 1953, including the violent abuse administered by Pa. It doesn’t take long for her parents and siblings to abandon her, leaving young Kya (JoJo Regina) to fend for herself in what most would consider a harsh environment. But Kya becomes one with nature. Though illiterate, she draws and charts local bugs, bird, and water creatures, while scrounging out a meager living thanks to assistance from local black store owners, Jumpin’ (Sterling Macer Jr) and Mabel (Michael Hyatt).

Daisy Edgar-Jones (“Normal People”, FRESH, 2022) plays older Kya, the one townspeople refer to as “Marsh Girl”. Sensitive local boy Tate (Taylor John Smith) shares Kya’s interest in nature and teaches her to read and write … surely having little to do with her being the prettiest marsh girl you’ve ever seen. When Tate heads off to college, adding another to the Kya abandonment roster, she’s pursued by local rich boy Chase (Harris Dickinson). This becomes another in the film’s storylines when Chase turns up dead after a fall from a fire tower. Despite no footprints, no fingerprints, and very little evidence, Kya is charged with murder and faces the death penalty. A local nice guy attorney (David Strathairn) takes the case and shy, withdrawn Kya provides little help in her defense.

So let’s chat about what’s good and not so good. The Kya character is fascinating and certainly worthy of being the centerpiece of a story. There are similarities to other stories about those who were raised outside of society. NELL (1994) and Tarzan come to mind, but despite the marsh environment, Kya never is a wild creature, and only as a child do we see her dirty and unkempt. This is a flaw, as Kya should be more raw and primitive … at least until her mentoring by Tate. It’s a mystery how Kya is as smart and clean and refined as she appears, since it’s mostly just the store owners who provide even a dash of support. The structure of the film is decidedly fluid – bouncing from timeline to timeline and from story to story. This kind of structure requires superb writing, something that just isn’t in the cards. The courtroom drama and murder case against Kya are especially lightweight and sloppy. Most of it makes little sense and bears almost no resemblance to what an actual trial would look like. Instead, it’s slick for dramatic effect.

The cliches are to be expected, and Ms. Edgar-Jones is to be commended to making the most of a role that often requires her to sit with bowed head or gazing at nature. The narration is odd, with an inordinate number of words jumbled up to initially differentiate between a marsh and a swamp. The love story seems pulled directly from a romance novel, and in fact, that’s probably the best description of his, rather than a murder mystery. Chase and Tate are textbook examples of the extremes of men, and Kya’s Pa adds fuel to the argument that most men are experts at letting down women. Kya’s attention to nature and emphasis on survival instinct vs morality are used multiple times to guide us toward the ending, which evidently is supposed to be a twist reveal. Cinematographer Polly Morgan inserts some nice shots of nature, and the music from Oscar winning composer Mychael Danna (LIFE OF PI) is excellent. Taylor Swift’s new song, “Carolina” plays over the closing credits. It’s not likely a film that will win over anyone who wasn’t a fan of the book, but those devoted readers will surely be on board.

It should be noted that a story more interesting that what we see in the movie, is the real-life events of writer Delia Owens and her husband from their twenty plus years in Africa. This includes a murder case with some curious similarities to what she wrote about. If you are interested, track down the 2010 New Yorker article, “The Hunted”, researched and written by Jeffrey Goldberg.

Opens in theaters July 15, 2022

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MARCEL THE SHELL WITH SHOES ON (2022)

July 7, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. For proof that social media and the internet can be used for good, I offer as evidence this film from writer-director Dean Fleisher-Camp and co-writers Elizabeth Holm, Nick Paley, and Jenny Slate. The first ‘Marcel’ short film hit the internet in 2010 and was such a hit that there were two follow-up short films and a best-selling picture book. Now expanded to a feature length film of 90 minutes, the innovative and curious premise holds up due to the fully-formed character of a precious one-googly-eyed mollusk shell wearing … yes … shoes.

Why do we connect with Marcel? Well, the instantly recognized voice created by Jenny Slate plays a huge part. There is a welcoming innocence in the wispy tone, and when combined with the exceptional writing, the result is a relatable character full of warmth and wit, and pain and humor. Marcel is naïve, yet persistent. He’s someone we like and pull for. The story is told via faux-documentary as a filmmaker (played by director Fleisher-Camp) stays in the Airbnb where Marcel lives with his aging grandmother Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini). During interviews, we learn that Marcel longs for his family and community that was disrupted when the home’s original owners broke up and moved out. Since then, Marcel has looked after his grandmother and helped her tend the garden. They have been quite creative in their use of household resources, including a tennis ball for transportation.

The filmmaker posts the interviews online and soon Marcel has a huge following, giving him hope that his family can be tracked down. This leads to a terrific “60 Minutes” segment with journalist Leslie Stahl. The best description I can offer of Marcel is adorable – not a word I use very often. Marcel forces us to view the world through a child’s eye, but it’s important to note, that while young children may find Marcel cute, the dialogue, wit, and life issues covered will be way over their heads (though not offensive in the least). Young kids (under 10) should probably stick to the shorts. The sad and painful context is balanced by sweetness and optimism. Marcel’s story inspires us to embrace all stages of life with an open heart and mind – dealing with grief and sadness, while coming out the other side with spirit intact.

A24 specializes in distributing innovative and creative movies, and this certainly qualifies. It’s not really a mockumentary because it’s not mocking anything. The stop-motion approach in documentary style may initially seem like whimsy, but we quickly realize it’s more substantive. Individual strength and the power of community are on full display, and somehow Marcel the Shell teaches us … while wearing shoes.

Opens in theaters on July 8, 2022

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BOTH SIDES OF THE BLADE (2022, France)

July 7, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. If you are one of the many who need someone to cheer for – a nice person – in order for a movie to work for you, then this latest from renowned French director Claire Denis (BEAU TREVAIL, 2019) is going to be a challenge. Ms. Denis co-wrote the script with Christine Angot (they previously collaborated on LET THE SUNSHINE IN, 2017), an adaptation of Ms. Angot’s novel.

Oscar winner Juliette Binoche stars as Sara, and we first see her whilst on an idyllic retreat with her long-time lover Jean, played by screen veteran Vincent Lindon. Sara and Jean are clearly happy and in love. When they return to Paris, we learn Sara is a talk show host for Radio France International, and Jean is a former Rugby star who has spent time in prison for an unspecified crime. His son, Marcus (Issa Perica), from a previous relationship is a troubled young man being raised by Jean’s elderly mother, Nelly (Bulle Ogier). Jean has little fatherly sense and makes only a negligible effort to help.

One day, Sara spots her former lover, Francois (Gregoire Colin), on the street. Maybe he sees her, maybe he doesn’t. Sara is overcome with emotion. Sara and Francois were together when she began seeing Jean. To make this the most French situation possible, Francois and Jean were friends and business associates at the time. It’s even implied that Jean’s crime was related to activities connected to Francois. So what happens next? Well, Francois phones Jean to offer him a chance to come back into the scouting business for a new sports agency. It’s at this point where Francois’ motivations come into question. Is he doing his friend a solid, or worming his way back into Sara’s life?

This becomes a love triangle even more complicated than most. Sara deludes herself into thinking she can once again enjoy the fruits of Francois, while also appeasing her beloved Jean. Jean is distracted by issues with Marcus, but also too proud to let Sara walk over him. On full display are the destructive effects of an affair and the lack of respect and appreciation for a strong relationship. When the power of lust and idealistic romance collide, things get emotional. Cinematographer Eric Gautier works wonders in confined spaces. We never feel like the characters have room to breathe after making another poor decision. It’s interesting to see how smoking and taking calls on the apartment balcony becomes the only “space”. The close-ups allow Ms. Binoche and Mr. Lindon to do what they do best. The music is by Stuart Staples and includes a song written especially for the film. Ms. Denis again proves adept at allowing viewers to interpret the actions of all-too-human characters.

Opening July 8, 2022

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