A FANTASTIC WOMAN (Una Majur Fantastica, 2017)

February 24, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. A few years ago, Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Lelio and his co-writer Gonzalo Maza delivered a terrific little indie entitled GLORIA (starring Paulina Garcia). It told the story of a single woman in her late 50’s navigating a society not designed to provide happiness for her. This time out Mr. Lelio and Mr. Maza collaborate on the story of another interesting woman, in what could easily be described as a companion piece to their previous film.

Trans actress Daniela Vega stars as Marina, a waitress who moonlights as a singer. The film begins quietly with Orlando (Francisco Reyes), a distinguished gentleman enjoying an afternoon spa treatment, before heading over to catch Marina’s singing act. See, Orlando and the much younger Marina are a couple. Their connection is obvious as they spend an evening dining, dancing, and heading to bed. Tragically, Orlando suffers an aneurysm and Marina rushes him to the hospital. When he dies, she is subjected to questioning, accusations, and a true lack of respect by most everyone – doctors, nurses, police, and Orlando’s family.

Marina is questioned by a sex crimes detective (Amparo Noguera) about her relationship with Orlando and whether she was paid or abused. The implication being that she was likely a prostitute. Orlando’s brother Gabo (Luis Gnecco), son Bruno (Nicolas Saavedra) and even ex-wife Sonia (Aline Kuppenheim) have reactions that range from passive-aggressive to threatening towards Marina and forbid her from attending the wake and funeral, and won’t even let her take the pet dog.

Cinematographer Benjamin Echazzarreta uses effectively uses light and color, and quite often has Marina front and center – either head-on or from behind. Marina’s visions and dream-like sequences allow us to understand how the stress of the situation is affecting her, and just how much she misses Orlando. She displays much inner-strength and dignity in the face of hatred and disgust … even while being treated as a criminal and/or victim – really anything except the partner she was.

The film has been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, and it’s easy to see why. Beautifully photographed with a knockout lead performance from Daniela Vega, the story emphasizes how we so often strive for “normal” that we lose our empathy and humanity in how we treat others. Music is put to good use – even the quite obvious use of Aretha Franklin singing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, and there is even a clever use of a McGuffin (a locker key). This well-made film with a powerful message is a reminder to ‘keep on keeping on’.

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THE YOUNG KARL MARX (2018)

February 24, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. When the name Karl Marx comes up, most of us recall that iconic photo of the older gentleman with the large grey beard. As with all older gents, they were once young men, and that’s the focus of this film from writer/director Raoul Peck and co-writer Pascal Bonitzer.

The story kicks off in 1843 when young Marx was the editor of “Rheinische Zeitung” and carries us through the 1848 publication of “The Communist Manifesto”. We progress chronologically through Paris, Brussels and London and witness how Marx’s personal life and ideological mission intertwined, leading ultimately to the birth of Communism.

August Diehl (INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS) plays Karl Marx and Stefan Konarske plays Friedrich Engels. Their mutual admiration brought them together and their commitment, along with the support of their wives Jenny Marx (Vicky Krieps, PHANTOM THREAD) and Mary Burns (Hannah Steele), carried them through and cemented their legacies.

With the endless string of debates and discussion, and the constant struggle with poverty for Marx and his family, the film at times seems repetitive and tedious. It does, however, succeed in making comprehensible the timeline and constant struggle to continue the fight. The process of societal-changing writing is not simple, and we see the different approaches taken by Marx and the upper-crust rebel Engels. The obvious battle between Bourgeoisie and Proletariat remains at the forefront, but we also witness the painstaking networking and research that goes into the work. The two gentlemen share a drink over this toast: “to minds that truly think”.

Today, many in their 20’s, are focused on which direction to swipe, yet at the same age, Marx and Engels were committed to changing the world. The ideals and issues that so dominated their writings (and led to revolution) are every bit as relevant today. We no longer use the terms Bourgeoisie or Proletariat, but class distinction continues to be debated as a source of many global issues – both social and economic. Director Peck (Oscar nominated for last year’s I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO) uses Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” over the closing credits montage of revolutions and historic turning points to ensure we understand that rebellions and convictions do still exist.

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THE 15:17 TO PARIS (2018)

February 8, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Allowing three regular guys to play themselves in the cinematic re-telling of their courageous and heroic actions is a fitting tribute to the men, and it’s an approach that we must be willing to cut some slack. On August 21, 2015, a terrorist aboard the Thalys train bound for Paris was thwarted in his attempt to carry out his mission of evil. Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler ultimately subdued the terrorist (who won’t be named here), likely saving many lives.

The real world heroics fall right in line with director Clint Eastwood’s two most recent films, SULLY and AMERICAN SNIPER. Unfortunately, while we admire his decision to allow these heroes to re-enact their life-saving bravery, we can’t let slide the downright boring first two-thirds of the film taking us through the origin story of their childhood (Sacramento 2005) to the backpacking trip that put them on that train. Some of the scenes are inexplicable. For instance, Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer play the mothers of Spencer and Alek respectively, and their confrontation with the boys’ elementary school teacher is a candidate for the worst and most embarrassing scene of the year.

Based on the book “The 15:17 to Paris: The True Story of a Terrorist, a Train, and Three American Heroes” (written by the three men and journalist Jeffrey E Stern), the script is adapted by Dorothy Blyskal, and when combined with some of the director’s choices, generates some unintended audience laughter … rarely a good thing. Watching three regular guys – three lifelong buddies – retrace their steps through Germany, Rome, Venice, and Amsterdam is almost tolerable because these are really nice guys. However, we can’t get over the feeling that we are watching home movies of our friends’ trip – a trip we weren’t even on. Jokes about selfie sticks and hangovers don’t make it any easier.

When the film finally gets to the moment of truth on the train, we end up where we should have started … admiring the heroics of three regular guys: Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler. We witness then French President Francois Hollande awarding them with the Legion of Honour. Themes of God, military and friendship are commonplace in Eastwood films, and eagle-eyed viewers will catch a glimpse of Alek wearing a “man with no name” t-shirt (in honor of the director). Bottom line, it plays like a film about nothing – until the end when it’s really about something special.

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BOMB CITY (2017)

February 8, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. This feature film debut from Texas filmmaker Jameson Brooks (co-written with Sheldon Chick) was an Audience Award winner at last year’s Dallas International Film Festival. It’s based on the incredulous true story of a tragic crime and the subsequent trial that occurred in Amarillo in the late 1990’s. It’s also an introduction to a talented and exciting filmmaker with a message that is as every bit as important now for every community as it was 20 years ago in the Texas panhandle.

The courtroom scenes serve as the story structure while flashbacks are blended with the defense attorney (Glenn Morshower) commenting/mocking the evidence as it’s shown to the jury. This style keeps those unfamiliar with the story uncertain as to the actual victim and the circumstances of the crime – at least until the final act when we see a re-enactment of the crime and the final day of trial. However, even if one is familiar with the specifics of the case, it is presented in such an exceptional manner that it will surely be just as impactful.

Keeping in mind that this is west Texas (remember “Friday Night Lights”) and football reigns supreme, so the ongoing battle between the Punks and the Preps sets the stage for ultimate cultural battle … especially in an area that is home to a nuclear bomb assembly plant. Volatility abounds. There is a terrific sequence with parallel cuts between the mosh pit of a local punk rock concert and the on-field violence of a local high school football game. There are more similarities than differences, well, until the kids from the two sides cross paths in the real world. Class differences are obvious, and so is the usual teen angst and rebellious nature.

Distinct differences in how the authorities handle each group’s form of release are on full display. The punks are caught tagging, while the pasture party of the jocks gains frenzy. One of these ends with handcuffs, and the other with polite dismissal. The core of the story is the ongoing comparison between Brian (in a wonderful performance from Dave Davies), sporting a colorful Mohawk as he skateboards through town, and Cody (an effective Luke Shelton), a buttoned-up football player always striving to prove his mettle as he cruises around town in Daddy’s Cadillac. A sense of doom-filled destiny accompanies their scenes, and of course, we know it won’t end well.

Many will find the film reminiscent of Frances Ford Coppola’s 1983 film THE OUTSIDERS, which featured the Greasers versus the Socs. The biting realism and grit of Mr. Brooks’ film helps us better understand the similarities between the two groups who look so different. And that’s the real message here: judging others by looks will never lead to understanding and peaceful coexistence. The cinematography of Jake Wilgonwski is a huge part of the emotional reaction we have to this story, and the notes provided at the end of the film leave us wondering if, 20 plus years later, we are any more advanced as a society than what occurred in that Amarillo parking lot.

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THE INSULT (2017, Lebanon)

February 1, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. When a film opens with a statement that ‘the views expressed are those of the authors and director, and not of the government of Lebanon’, one quickly understands the difference in artistic freedom in that country versus what occurs in the United States, where cartoons and memes regularly poke fun at this country’s President. Director Ziad Doueri and his co-writer Joelle Touma present an intense story of human nature that might happen anywhere, but since the leads are a Lebanese Christian and a Palestine refugee, that opening statement is warranted.

One morning, a seemingly innocuous exchange between Tony (Adel Karam) and Yasser (Kamel El-Basha) takes place. While watering flowers on his balcony, the overflow sprays Yasser on the street below. Yasser, a city contractor, orders his team to fix the drainage issue, and Tony reacts violently – leading to Yasser delivering the titular insult. From there, all heck breaks loose. Apologies are requested and never delivered. Appeals to rational reconsideration are made. Tony’s pregnant wife (an excellent Rita Hayek) pleads with him to let it go. Yasser’s boss threatens him with termination. Still, two stubborn and prideful men refuse to give in.

The subsequent courtroom drama feature other side stories, not the least of which is the relationship between the two opposing attorneys (Diamond Bou Abboud and Camile Salaheh), one a rising legal star and the other a veteran attempting to make up for a past failure. Emotions run high as two too-proud men turn what was little more than a playground standoff into a national incident being fought in the legal system and the media. Tony is a hot-head who somehow thinks an apology from Yasser is actually an apology for how Palestinians “messed up this country”. Yasser’s stoic nature barely shrouds his bitterness at the world since the Lebanon Civil War. History and childhood roots play a role, but mostly it’s human nature that is at the core of this escalation.

Though the title is not plural, there are multiple insults slung throughout the film, each reminding us of the power of words and the futility of the “sticks and stones” phrase. Our own prejudices and preconceptions alter our views and reactions, often preventing us from standing in the other fellow’s shoes. Again, this situation could have played out in most any neighborhood on the globe, but this particular locale shows various ethnic and religious groups are still grappling with what it means to live together – despite the years of wars and unrest. We don’t see a great deal of Middle Eastern cinema, but three days after I watched this film, it became the first ever movie from Lebanon to receive an Oscar nomination (Best Foreign Language Film) … proving yet again that the language of cinema is universal.

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HAVE A NICE DAY (2018, animated)

February 1, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. One need only read the credits to understand that this is a personal project of Liu Jian. It’s kind of comical to see his name come up as writer, director, illustrator, producer, and editor. He even wrote at least one of the songs featured in the film! An animated film from China that is clearly influenced by the likes of Quentin Tarantino and some modern day madcap caper films offers a nice respite from the typical January releases that hit the theatre.

Jian’s film is a crime thriller with socioeconomic subtext that hovers over each scene. An extended opening credits sequence provides the lay of the land (in this case, city) for the upcoming story. There is very little build up to the crime that ignites the cluster that follows. Xiao Zhang steals a bag filled with one million yuan. The bag belongs to “Uncle Liu”, a feared crime lord and gangster who sends his trusted and ruthless hitman “Skinny” to retrieve his money.

The old adage, “follow the money”, comes into play here. Following the money is not as simple as it sounds, as these aren’t brilliant criminal minds at work here. In addition to Tarantino, thoughts of the Coen Brothers came to mind, as did the Scorsese gem AFTER HOURS. Xiao Zhang has no heroic or altruistic motives. He simply wants to pay for a re-do of his fiancé’s botched plastic surgery. The zaniness around the money involves many colorful participants, each who have their own designs for the bag.

A couple of odd musical interludes involve Shangri-La and some ocean waves, and there is a God vs. Buddha debate that reminds of the infamous Mighty Mouse vs Superman argument in STAND BY ME. The film played well at festivals and at 77 minutes, it’s a briskly-paced chase movie that might have benefited from a bit more humor.

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FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL (2018)

January 26, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Old Hollywood glamour is merely something we read about or reminisce about these days. Part of the reason is that we are almost as likely to see a favorite star on TV as in a new movie, and a bigger cause is that we simply know too much about them as people … the mystique has been replaced by (too many) personal details and divisive political influence.

Classic movie lovers always have favorite performers, and there were certainly some great ones in the Golden Era: Bogart, Gable, Hepburn, Davis, etc; however, I’ve always felt there was one actress who time seems to have forgotten. Gloria Grahame never seemed to choose the easy route (either on screen or real life), and she turned in some terrific performances in the 1940’s and 50’s. You might only know her as Violet in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, but she was also an Oscar winner for THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952), and had standout roles in OKLAHOMA! (1955), THE BIG HEAT (1953), and IN A LONELY PLACE (1950). Her talent allowed her to fit as well for a musical or family film, as in the Noir Thrillers for which she seemed to thrive.

So why all the background on a mostly forgotten actress from a bygone era? Because Annette Bening magically channels the late actress in her role as Ms. Grahame in the final stages of her life. Director Paul McGuigan’s film is based on the memoir of Peter Turner, a young man who had a relationship with the actress in her later years. Turner is played here by Jamie Bell (BILLY ELLIOT) and he and Ms. Bening are so believable, that we are fully drawn in by their characters and their touching story.

Opening with the actress in her dressing room prepping for a dinner theatre version of “The Glass Menagerie”, the film conveys much in these few minutes. Clearly, this is an actress far removed from the Hollywood spotlight. We also sense her immense pride is still present, and the glass of milk is for relief from her discomfort … later self-diagnosed as “gas”.

We start in 1981 and flashback to 1979. Creative transitions between scenes and times add a stylish element to a story that is ultimately about human relationships, aging and loneliness. The need to be cared for when sick is as crucial as the importance of being a dependable caregiver for loved ones. The film’s script from Matt Greenhalgh allows for an empathetic look at these topics through the eyes of people we quickly care about.

Julie Walters (Bell’s dance teacher in BILLY ELLIOT) is exceptional as Turner’s mother and Ms. Grahame’s caregiver. Other supporting roles include Kenneth Cranham as Turner’s dad, Stephen Graham as his fiery brother, and Vanessa Redgrave as Ms. Grahame’s mother. We never get the back story on why Ms. Grahame feels so connected to the Turner family – only that the 28 year age difference between herself and Peter didn’t much matter to either of them.

There is a sexually-charged disco dance with Ms. Grahame and Peter in her hotel room that makes clear why any young man might fall for her, but it’s really in the quieter moments where the film and Ms. Bening and Mr. Bell shine. The emotions and pain are palpable, and yet neither her spirit nor his devotion will quit. The music from Jose Feliciano and Elvis Costello is terrific and comfortably fits a story of love and aging and illness, while also reminding us … once a starlet, always a starlet, even when the star has faded.

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