C’MON C’MON (2021)

November 24, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Not all filmmakers have something to say about human beings and human nature, but writer-director Mike Mills does … and he continues to prove it. His three previous feature films are all excellent. 20th CENTURY WOMEN (2016) was based on his experience being raised by his mother, while BEGINNERS (2010) was a tribute to his father. THUMBSUCKER (2005) focused on teen angst, and his latest is inspired by interactions with his own son and Mills’ documentary projects.

From the mouths of babes. Early on, we watch and listen as radio journalist Johnny (Oscar winner Joaquin Phoenix, JOKER, 2019) interviews kids in Detroit to get their opinions on all aspects of life and the world, including their hopes and expectations for the future. This and additional segments and the kids’ responses seem real, not staged, presenting a documentary feel – especially since everything is filmed in Black and White. In a rare phone call with his estranged sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman, who will always be remembered as Ray’s daughter in FIELD OF DREAMS, 1989), Johnny offers to take care of Viv’s 9 year old son, Jesse (Woody Norman), while Viv assists Jesse’s father, Paul (Scoot McNairy), who battles ongoing mental health issues.

Viv is reticent to leave Jesse with Uncle Johnny, an unmarried man with no kids of his own. But she’s desperate for the help. Most of the film revolves around Johnny and Jesse spending time together and getting to know each other. Circumstances take the story from Detroit to New York City to Los Angeles to New York City to New Orleans. It’s a terrific journey that lacks any jaw-dropping cinematic elements. These two aren’t mountain climbing or spelunking. They simply walk and talk. This allows Jesse to experience a father-figure that’s been lacking in his life. For Johnny, he gains a perspective on parenting, which contrasts with his professional work interviewing kids. Jesse is whip smart and funny, but also manipulative and confused and downright quirky. The two of them together is quite something to watch as their relationship develops.

Viv shows up mostly in phone calls with Johnny and Jesse, but flashbacks help us understand the emotional break that occurred between she and Johnny. As the two siblings mend their relationship despite the distance, Mills and cinematographer Robbie Ryan effectively use the black and white palette to negate the excitement of big cities and travel, so that we focus on the personal interactions of the characters. The photography may be beautiful to look at, but it also reminds us that to a kid, a city is a city is a city, and what matters is an emotional bond and sense of security.

Young Woody Norman is a revelation as Jesse. He perfectly portrays a normal kid with normal issues in a grown up world. Gaby Hoffman doesn’t have as many scenes as we’d like, but we certainly wish she would work more frequently. As for Joaquin Phoenix, it’s a welcome change of pace and tone after JOKER. He plays a man learning to deal with his own vulnerabilities, and he really gets to show off his extraordinary acting talent. The script is filled with psychology and philosophy, but in a grounded manner – ways we recognize from our own lives. It’s a reflective film that shows the balance of trying to protect kids and shield them from some adult stuff, while also allowing them to explore and find themselves. The impact of adults on kids and the impact of kids on adults is on full display, but it’s also just a couple of guys getting to know each other. And that’s pretty special to watch.

The film had a limited opening on November 19, and expands to more cities and theaters on November 24, 2021

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HOUSE OF GUCCI (2021)

November 22, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. I’ve never purchased or owned anything Gucci, but that didn’t prevent me from enjoying the heck out of Ridley Scott’s film that brings the longest, most expensive and dangerous real life episode of ‘Family Feud’ to the big screen. It’s co-written by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna, and is based on the 2001 book, “House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed” by Sara Gay Forden. Brace yourself for a (mostly) true wild ride, and for what is likely to be one of the year’s most divisive films – plenty of love and hate (just like the actual story).

What happens when a brand is so closely associated with a family name? The arguments begin on who ‘deserves’ to be a Gucci, who is a ‘real’ Gucci, and who should make the decisions that impact the Gucci family and business wealth and reputation. During the extended run time (2 hours, 37 minutes), we see many of the iconic Gucci items: the Flora scarf, the moccasins, the bamboo bag, and the watches. And though high fashion is always present, director Scott has delivered a spectacle of romance, family riffs, extravagance, greed, power, betrayal, revenge, and crime.

Lady Gaga (Oscar winner, A STAR IS BORN, 2018) stars as Patrizia, the newest Gucci. Hers is not blind ambition, but rather calculated and laser-focused. That she implodes a dysfunctional family is only a portion of the story. After marrying Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver), Patrizia immediately begins manipulating her husband into reconciling with his family and taking on an active role in a business for which he previously had little interest. This is simply step two (the first was marriage) in her grand scheme to control the business and the money. Maurizio’s father Rodolfo (Oscar winner Jeremy Irons, REVERSAL OF FORTUNE, 1990) is ailing, so it’s Uncle Aldo (Oscar winner Al Pacino, SCENT OF A WOMAN, 1992) to whom Patrizia directs her attention. She plays it like a chess match – only this is more entertaining to watch unfold.

Also in the picture is Paolo Gucci (a truly unrecognizable Jared Leto, Oscar winner, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB), Aldo’s son, and a family outcast. Paolo is a wildly creative individual who tends to his pet pigeons and tries desperately to find his place in the family. Jack Huston plays Dominico De Sole, Rodolfo’s consigliere and the family attorney. Each of the characters is given their time in the spotlight, including a terrific breakfast scene with Pacino and Irons. Of course this is mostly Patrizia’s story, so it’s Lady Gaga’s performance that will attract much of the attention and commentary. I found her mesmerizing and twisted fun to watch as she proceeded with backstabbing and trickery. Driver’s quietly intense approach makes the perfect contrast to hers.

If you are familiar with the story, you know that Maurizio does eventually run the company, and he also tires of Patrizia’s family-crushing antics … which send him back into the arms of Paola Franchi (Camile Cottin, STILLWATER, 2021). This turns the campy and juicy melodrama factor up to 11 (on the Spinal Tap scale). Patrizia’s frequent trips to fortune teller and TV psychic Pina Auriemma (Salma Hayek) cause a massive tonal shift in the film, leading to the well-documented conclusion. If all this isn’t strange enough, Ms. Hayek is the real-life spouse of the CEO of Gucci’s present-day parent company, Kering. Reeve Carney (“Penny Dreadful”) has a small, yet vital role as up-and-coming fashion designer Tom Ford.

In this movie, it’s easy to describe some performances as hammy or over-the-top, but that’s likely to only hold as a first reaction. Leto’s characterization of Paolo sticks out so much from the others … but he was known as eccentric, and at best, was patronized by the family. It seems highly likely that his personality and approach stood in stark contrast to the old-school style of his father Aldo, or the more staid personalities of his Uncle Rodolfo and cousin Maurizio. Lady Gaga as Patrizia is cunning and shrewd in her calculated approach to re-structure the family and the business. She plays whatever games she must to get where she wants to be. I found her first half performance to be truly outstanding. Pacino is the actor who has trademarked hammy performances over the years, yet here, he fully grasps his role and character, and is a delight to watch.

Much of this is documented by history, though the Gucci family claims not all is or was how it seems. Whether the boost in counterfeiting/knock-offs went down in the 70’s and 80’s as it’s portrayed here, might be an area worth researching, but this is much less a case study in business principles as it is one in family dynamics. I’ll certainly understand those who argue against the story structure here, but the entertainment value proved to be enough for me. As the Gucci tagline goes, “Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten”, but the backstabbing and disloyalty is never forgotten – despite providing great theater (and fashion).

Opens in theaters on November 24, 2021

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KING RICHARD (2021)

November 18, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Sports parents. Band parents. Dance parents. Cheerleader parents. Drama parents. We all know THOSE parents … and many of us, whether we admit it or not, ARE those parents. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green (JOE BELL, 2020) and first time screenwriter Zach Baylin bring us the story of the unconventional, hard-driving, flawed, well-intentioned father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams.

Will Smith portrays Richard Williams in a showcase role that he capitalizes on. Richard Williams is not a particularly likable man – his hustler mentality is eclipsed only by his stubbornness. But more than anything, Richard Williams was committed to giving Venus and Serena every opportunity to succeed in a tennis world that seemed like a different universe to the Compton neighborhood in which they were raised. Richard and his wife Oracene (an outstanding Aunjanue Ellis, THE HELP) coached the young girls themselves in public parks via instructional articles in Tennis magazines. Both parents balanced their jobs with this coaching, and Richard spent a significant amount of time “marketing” the girls to professional coaches, most who had no interest in taking on pupils who couldn’t pay.

Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and younger sister Serena (Demi Singleton) trust whole-heartedly in “The Plan” their father has in place. It’s a plan designed to place million dollar checks in their hands, and lead them to the top of the tennis world. Their first break comes in the form of John McEnroe coach Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), who agrees to coach Venus. The real fun begins when Richard cuts a deal with super coach/trainer Rick Macci (a terrific Jon Bernthal) to take on both girls and cover the families living arrangements in Florida.

What makes this film work is that so many of us can relate to just how difficult it is to be a parent, and never settle for less when it comes to the kids. Now, Richard Williams is an extreme example – and his enormously successful daughters have dealt his approach a hand of credibility. Richard and Oracene are presented as very protective of their daughters, but also obsessed with helping them excel at school, tennis, and life. Given that there are three other daughters living in the house, it’s surprising that we don’t get more details on the reactions from those girls to the favorable treatment of Venus and Serena. The family is presented as being very tight-knit and loving, but it’s difficult to swallow that jealousy didn’t rise up periodically.

This truly is the story of how Richard Williams remained focused on getting his daughters to the top, so don’t expect the tennis history of Venus and Serena. The young actors playing them are excellent, but this takes us through the foundation of their careers while overcoming adversity, not the professional highlights. Oscar winning cinematographer Robert Elswit (THERE WILL BE BLOOD) makes the tennis look legitimate, while also bringing us the family intimacy. In fact, the scene in the kitchen is one of the more intense and well-acted scenes we will see this year, and the camera work amplifies the tension. On the lighter side, we get Will Smith singing Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler”, and the closing credits show actual clips of Richard, Venus and Serena, as well as a rundown of their impressive achievements. Director Green has delivered a crowd-pleaser with some poignancy and a few well-placed messages. It wouldn’t surprise to see a few award nominations attached to this one.

Opens in theaters and streams on HBO Max beginning November 19, 2021

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TICK, TICK … BOOM! (2021)

November 18, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Success comes in many shapes and sizes. Sometimes it brings happiness, glory, and financial gain, while other times there is an emptiness or sadness. Who better than Lin-Manuel Miranda (of “Hamilton” fame) to direct the cinematic tribute to composer and playwright Jonathan Larson? You likely know Larson’s name from his long-running Broadway smash hit, “Rent”, but this is his autobiographical project based on his early struggles in trying to write the next great American musical. It has been adapted for the screen by Steven Levenson (“Fosse/Verdon”).

Opening in January 1990, a full (i.e., long) version of Larson’s “30/90” song kicks us off with singing, dancing, and choreography. It’s important to note that this was the era of AIDS raging through the New York arts scene – people were dying, and friends were frightened. Andrew Garfield leaps into the role of Jon, sporting Cosmo Kramer hair, and a boundless, frenetic energy that overshadows his friends and loved ones. Jon is in full panic mode as his 30th birthday approaches and he rushes to finish his futuristic rock-musical “Superbia”, which he expects will be his springboard to stardom. In the meantime, he works at the Moondance Diner while remaining committed and obsessed with his art.

Director Miranda adds a structural element with cut-aways to Jon (Garfield) performing his own musical onstage at New York Theater Workshop. However most of the run time is focused on Jon’s writer’s block associated with the final song he must write. His idol, the legendary Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford) advised him of the importance, and we aren’t sure if the block stems from this or the fact that it’s the final missing piece. Garfield is exceptional as the self-absorbed, and obviously talented Jon. As his friend and roommate Michael (Robin de Jesus, THE BOYS IN THE BAND, 2020) has surrendered his dream of art for a well-paying advertising job, it’s clear that Jon still believes art can change the world.

Alexandra Shipp (LOVE, SIMON 2018) plays Susan, Jon’s dancer-girlfriend. She also is considering the reality of a teaching job versus the dream of performing, yet Jon is too immersed in his own work to take heed of her warnings. He is so against ‘selling out’ that he even cruelly debates Michael on the pursuit of creature comforts. Of course, much of this would eventually lead Larson to write “Rent”, but this film doesn’t cover that period. Vanessa Hudgens (HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL franchise) and Broadway standout Joshua Henry perform much of the singing here, but Garfield holds his own on the musical and dance numbers.

Other supporting roles are filled by Judith Light as Jon’s agent, Rosa Stevens, and Richard Kind as a both-sides-of-his-mouth stage critic, while director Miranda makes a cameo as a short order cook at the diner. The challenges of New York City life in the art world are clearly shown here, and mostly this is a loving tribute to Jonathan Larson by his admirer Lin-Manuel Miranda … with an exciting performance from Andrew Garfield. It’s an entertaining production that never pretends to offer up inspiration or false hope to the dreamers in the audience.

Streaming on Netflix beginning November 19, 2021

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PRAYERS FOR THE STOLEN (2021)

November 17, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. This is Mexico’s official Oscar submission for 2021 Best International Feature Film. Written and directed by Tatiana Huezo (her first narrative feature), the story is adapted from the 2014 best-selling novel by Jennifer Clement. It’s an unusual film that lacks a traditional plot, and instead focuses on the daily lives within a small village in Mexico.

Young girls Ana, Paula, and Maria are good friends. They live in a poverty stricken area, and most of the males work in the quarry/mine or for the cartel, leaving women and children to make do scrounging for food and working in the poppy fields at harvest time. Rita (Mayra Batalla) is Ana’s mother. She’s a proud, hard-working woman who is very protective of her daughter. Why? Well the area is patrolled by the cartel, and neighbors regularly go ‘missing’ – especially young girls. When Ana shows up wearing lipstick, Rita doesn’t find it cute. Instead she serves up a harsh reprimand to the girl too young to understand the risk.

Our view is from Ana’s perspective, and there are two distinct halves. In the first, Ana and her friends are very young (likely between 7 and 9). When we flash forward, the girls are 13 or 14. As a youngster, Ana is played by Ana Cristina Ordonez Gonzales, and she cries when her mother chops off her long hair and styles it like a young boy. This is not done for punishment, but rather to make her less desirable to the cartel. Her friend Paula goes through the same ordeal, while Maria’s cleft palate is deemed to serve the same purpose. As a teenager, Ana is played by Marya Membreno, and the haircut no longer hides her femininity, though her friend Maria faces a tough decision when medical assistance becomes available.

Director Huezo and the actors do a superb job in conveying the ever-present aura of danger hovering over the village. Rita digs a grave-like hole as a hiding place for Ana, and their strategy is put to use. In one particularly tense scene in conflict with the cartel, what keeps Rita alive is that she works in the poppy field – so she is viewed as an asset. As if possible starvation or abduction aren’t enough to keep everyone worried, the poppy fields are sprayed with poison in an attempt to control the crops – only the poison gets dumped on the village instead, as the helicopter pilots have been bribed and threatened by the cartel.

This is a haunting film and we connect quickly with Rita and Ana. We feel the relentless pressure of living in an environment where the cloak of danger is always worn and constant fear is a part of daily life. School provides the girls with a glimmer of hope, although it’s fleeting. This is no place for childhood innocence, and the responsibilities of parenting are almost beyond anyone’s ability. Cinematographer Dariela Ludlow perfectly captures the images, the acting is terrific, and director Huezo has delivered a gem.

Available on Netflix beginning November 17, 2021

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BELFAST (2021)

November 12, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Despite Irish ancestry, during my childhood, Ireland was vaguely described as a place to avoid due to the Northern Ireland Conflict (also known as The Troubles). In contrast, the childhood of writer-director Kenneth Branagh was smack dab in the middle of this political and religious mess. This autobiographical project is a sentimental look back at his youth and the connection to his career as a filmmaker. This is very attractive and appealing filmmaking, and one that acknowledges the violent atmosphere without dwelling on it.

An opening aerial view of present day Belfast shipyards in full color abruptly transitions back to black and white 1969. A young boy plays and skips cheerfully as he makes his way through the apparently idyllic neighborhood. The pleasantries are shattered and give way to the frenzied fear and havoc created by an approaching angry mob. The native Protestants’ goal is to push out all Catholics from the area. The happy young boy we first see is Buddy (played by newcomer Jude Hill), the stand-in for Branagh as a child. While watching, we must keep in mind that we are seeing things unfold through Buddy’s eyes – which are actually the eyes of a middle-aged director looking back on his upbringing. This explains the sentimentality and nostalgia, two aspects handled exceedingly well.

Buddy and his older brother Will (Lewis McAskie) live with their parents Ma (Caitriona Balfe, FORD V FERRARI, “Outlander”) and Pa (Jamie Dornan, “The Fall”), and are close with Granny (Oscar winner Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciaran Hinds, one of the finest supporting actors working today). Pa spends much of his time away in London working as a carpenter, leaving Ma parenting diligently to create normalcy for the boys during tumultuous times. An added stress is the financial woes Ma and Pa face over tax debt. Granny and Pop are an endearing elderly couple still very much in love, despite their constant needling and bickering. 

As things escalate, the division over religion becomes more prevalent. Although he attempts to stay out of the fracas, Pa is faced with the “either with us or against us” decision – something he avoids as long as possible. Ma is obsessed with keeping her boys on the straight and narrow, despite their naivety and the many forces pulling them away. The family finds its emotional escape at the local cinema, which treats us to clips of bikini-clad Raquel Welch in ONE MILLION YEARS BC; Grace Kelly and Gary Cooper facing off with a similar ‘stay or go’ dilemma in HIGH NOON; John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Lee Marvin in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE; and Dick Van Dyke in his flying car from CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG. The sense of awe and wonder is laid on a bit thick for effect, but it helps us connect young Buddy with present day Branagh.

It’s quite a family dilemma. How do you decide to pack up and leave the only town you’ve ever called home, and when do you make that decision? When does the danger and turmoil pose too much to risk for your kids? There is a fun scene that provides young Buddy a lesson on how to answer, “Are you Protestant or Catholic?” It plays comically but has a serious undertone. Speaking of Buddy, newcomer Jude Hall in his feature film debut, uses his sparkling eyes and an engaging smile to light up the screen. His adolescent pining for Catherine (Olive Tennant), the smart girl in his class, is worthy of the price of admission. All of the actors are terrific, and in addition to young Mr. Hall, it’s Caitriona Balfe (as Ma) whose performance really stands out. Award considerations should be in her future.

Filmmaker Branagh has assembled a crew of frequent collaborators, including cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, who works wonders with the monochromatic scheme. The soundtrack is chock full of Van Morrison songs – it is Ireland, after all, and the overall feeling is that this is a film Branagh needed to make in order to deal with his childhood prior to his family relocating to England. By not avoiding The Troubles, yet not focusing on it, Branagh has told his story in a personal way that should be relatable to many. It’s a terrific film.

BELFAST opens in theaters on November 12, 2021

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THE SOUVENIR: PART II (2021)

November 12, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. We tend to think of ‘coming-of-age’ movies as centered on teenagers as they face the challenges of transitioning into adulthood. The reality is that folks come of age during different phases of life (and some seemingly never do). Filmmaker Joanna Hogg continues her autobiographical look back with the follow-up to her exceptional 2019 arthouse film. Is it a sequel? Technically, yes; but it’s more of a continuation, and the two parts actually function best as a single 4-hour story.

Starting off shortly after the first movie ended, part two finds Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) in bed at her parents’ house. They try to comfort her as she grieves the death of Anthony (played so well in the first by Tom Burke). For those who have not seen the 2019 film, I’ll tread lightly as it should be seen prior to this one due to the continuing story line and numerous references. Despite her confusion and despondency, Julie heads back to film school. Using art to deal with her emotions, she starts all over with the script for her graduation film. The Film School committee of like-minded middle-aged men thrash her idea of dealing with her situation on film. Despite their harsh words, she persists.

For such a ‘quiet’ movie, it’s astonishing how many things are going on in Ms. Hogg’s film and in Julie’s world. The jealousies of film school students are noted, as are the discrepancies between overly confident young filmmakers (a brilliant Richard Ayoade) and those still trying to find their voice (Julie). Ayoade’s arrogant Patrick is recognizable to us as a big production filmmaker in the vein of many who have come before him. On the other hand, Julie stumbles over how best to convey the emotions for the actors in her film … a film that is so personal she’s dealing with memories even while setting up scenes.

Honor Swinton Byrne (Tilda Swinton’s daughter) excels at relaying a certain sadness in Julie as she pushes onward. Anthony’s ghost hovers everywhere for her. She bravely visits his parents. The confusion over Anthony’s story, and her shock at not having recognized the signs, are exemplified as she presents the common façade of appearing OK while struggling inside. Julie’s parents, played by (the always great) Tilda Swinton and James Spencer Ashworth walk on egg shells around her, while trying to offer support, despite their detachment – not just from the relationship, but from Julie’s life in general (other than lending her money in times of need).

Supporting work comes from Charlie Heaton, Harris Dickinson, and Ariane Labed, as student actors. In Julie’s film, Ms. Labed plays the role of Julie, which in reality, is the role of Ms. Hogg as a young aspiring filmmaker. Joe Alwyn has a terrific cameo as Julie’s editor in one of the most awkward and tender scenes. Ms. Hogg did not film the two parts simultaneously, but her style is so unique (as an example, songs cut off abruptly mid-scene) that it’s a challenge not to rave about the look and feel. Her talented collaborators include Film Editor Helle le Fevre, who serves up some creative transitions; Production Designer Stephane Collonge, whose sets are crucial in a film with minimal dialogue; and Cinematographer David Radeker whose lensing gives the film the perfect look for its time. Tilda Swinton stars in Ms. Hogg’s upcoming film, THE ETERNAL DAUGHTER; however, we will have to be patient to see if Honor Swinton Byrne continues to pursue acting, a profession to which she seems destined.

In theaters beginning November 12, 2021

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*link to my review of THE SOUVENIR (2019)


THE BETA TEST (2021)

November 8, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Writer-director-editor-actor Jim Cummings’ 2018 film THUNDER ROAD was quite popular on the festival circuit, and Cummings is back with another story of a stressed out man … at a time when the world doesn’t much care about stressed out men, especially those who carry themselves with a heavy dose of self-importance. Cummings and co-writer, co-director, and co-star PJ McCabe have delivered a satire on traditional Hollywood in the shape of a whodunit with dark comedy that teeters into thriller territory.

Cummings stars as Jordan Hines, a high-octane Hollywood agent who talks as quickly and incessantly as he smiles, and neither are sincere. Jordan is an unlikable guy who belittles the support staff and mostly patronizes his fiancé Caroline (Virginia Newcomb, THE DEATH OF DICK LONG, 2019), while kissing the proverbial tushes of prospective clients. One day a mysterious elegant purple envelope shows up in Jordan’s mail. It’s an invitation to meet up with an admirer for anonymous, no-strings attached sex (as if that’s even possible when someone has targeted you). He initially trashes the envelope, before reconsidering.

After the encounter, Jordan’s personality becomes unhinged and his world begins to crumble. He wants to know who the woman was and why he was chosen. His desperate obsession with locating the mystery woman means his work suffers, as does his relationship with Caroline. Jordan’s fantasy has turned into a nightmare that causes him to see and hear things – and he’s unable to discern his visions from reality. This fast-talking agent teeters between viable and obsolete, and an “I’m so excited” montage fits perfectly into the persona of a man who lacks sincerity, doesn’t know himself, and is oblivious to the needs of others.

There are some comparisons here to Jeremy Piven’s character in “Entourage” and Patrick Bateman/Christian Bale in AMERICAN PSYCHO, but Cummings make the character his own. The comedy is dark and satirical, but the film never seems sure of itself as it bounds between erotic thriller (with very little eroticism), a ‘who is she’ mystery, and commentary on how a certain type of individual is no longer welcome in a post-Harvey proper society.

The opening sequence is no slow start, as it features a brutally violent murder – an incident that doesn’t find its place until near the end of the film. Also included here is cautionary tale on the dark web, and the dangers of social media and the internet, although this feels like an add-on, rather than a fully developed sub-plot.  Virginia Newcomb does get to deliver the film’s best line, “I’m not insulting you. I’m describing you”. Also giving the story a contemporary feel is the emphasis on packaging deals, which is a relevant topic in the ongoing discussions with industry unions. There is a lot tossed in here, and some parts work better than others.

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HEART OF CHAMPIONS (2021)

October 31, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. We’ve seen most of this before in a long list of inspirational sports stories where the beleaguered, tough as nails coach comes in and unites a rag-tag team while teaching life lessons. However, with (2-time Oscar nominee) Michael Shannon cast as the coach, we know there will be at least one performance worth watching. The screenplay is from Vojin Gjaja and it’s directed by Michael Mailer (son of 2-time Pulitzer Prize winning author, Norman Mailer).

The film opens in May 1999 as a crew team finishes last in the Collegiate Rowing Championships. Inner-team bickering and animosity exists thanks to domineering Team Captain Alex (Alexander Ludwig, “Vikings”). The following year, the team is introduced to their new coach, Coach Murphy (Shannon). He has a different approach and he’s focused on creating a team, rather than a few guys with oars. All we really learn about Murphy is that he’s an alum and former rower for this same college, and an Army and Vietnam veteran who lost friends in the war, and carries that burden with him every day.

Alex (Ludwig) is back for his senior year and his goal is to be chosen for the Olympics team … a goal his over-bearing father (David James Elliott, “JAG”) reminds him of every few minutes. The other two crew members who get significant screen time are John (Alex MacNicoll, ALL ROADS TO PEARLA, 2019) and newcomer Chris (Charles Melton, THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR, 2019). John is dating Alex’s ex-girlfriend Sara (Ash Santos), while transfer student Chris is dealing with a recent tragedy, and also attracted to Sara’s friend Nisha (Lilly Krug, EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE, 2021). And yes, at times the melodrama of these folks is just a bit too heavy-handed and soap opera-ish. Coach Murphy is clearly the most interesting character, yet the film spends the bulk of its time on the youngsters and their daily journey.

One of the plusses here is that the sport at the center is rowing, which at least veers from the typical sports fare. But then we learn very little about the sport, other than it blisters your hands and causes your lungs to burn … and there is “swing” which occurs when the team is in full sync. Mr. Shannon does as much with his underwritten role as possible; however, overall the movie is just a bit too generic with its final lesson of, “a loss is not the end.” Should you have an interest in a true life rowing story, allow me to recommend the 2013 book (my son recommended to me), “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Olympics” by Daniel James Brown

Opened October 29, 2021

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LAST NIGHT IN SOHO (2021)

October 28, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Every once in a while a movie captures that magic feeling of being swept away, and this wild film from writer-director Edgar Wright and co-writer Kristy Wilson-Cairns (1917) did just that for me. This is my kind of psychological-horror-thriller and with the exception of one sequence that went a bit too “slasher” for my tastes, I had a blast watching it. I’ll admit that, while also acknowledging more people will probably not enjoy this, than will. But for those who do, I feel confident they will share my enthusiasm.

Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie, JOJO RABBIT, 2019) opens the film by expressively dancing to Peter & Gordon’s “A World Without Love” while sporting a self-designed dress made of perfectly creased newspaper. Her room is filled with 1960’s colors and memorabilia and we soon learn she’s an orphan raised by her grandmother (Rita Tushingham, A TASTE OF HONEY, 1961). Eloise, or Ellie as she’s called, dreams of following her mother’s path to London, and is thrilled beyond measure when her acceptance letter arrives from the London School of Fashion. Ellie does carry the burden (and visions) of her mother’s mental illness, and her grandmother warns, “London can be a lot.”

Small town (Cornwall) Ellie with her timidity and wide-eyed innocence arrives in London and is immediately the target of ‘mean girl’ and fellow student Jocasta (Synnove Karlsen). Rather than subject herself to the abuse, Ellie sublets an attic room from an old lady landlord named Mrs. Collins (the last screen appearance for the great Diana Rigg). Ellie loves the room and her independence, but her dreams act as a portal back to those swinging 60’s of which she’s so fond. But that’s only the beginning. It’s here where she follows/becomes Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), and the mirror effects are truly other-worldly. Sandie is everything that Ellie wishes she was herself – confident, radiant, ambitious, and beautiful. This dream state allows Ellie to live vicariously through Sandie. At least initially.

The Ellie-Sandie sequences mess with your head in a wonderful way. Sandie seems to float across the club’s dance floor, and Ellie is mesmerized at first, before turning protective. The tone shifts when Sandie meets sleazy Jack (Matt Smith), a would-be agent who promises to get Sandie the shot at stardom she desires. This leads to ATJ’s amazing and breathy version of Petula Clark’s “Downtown”. It’s a standalone highlight of the film, and a moment that shifts the story yet again. If you are struggling to keep pace, you’re not alone.

Soho’s glamour is matched only by its grunge. The recurring dreams turn to nightmares, so that even Ellie’s waking hours are surreal. A mysterious elderly gent played by Terence Stamp may be the key to the mystery Ellie’s so busy trying to solve that she is oblivious to the romantic overtures by nice guy John (Michael Ajao). The nostalgia of the 60’s provides a visual treat with the Café de Paris, a massive theater marquee advertising James Bond’s THUNDERBALL, and Cilla Black’s “You’re My World”.

Filmmaker Wright gives us so much to discuss, but it’s crucial that the best parts not be spoiled. Just know that Oscar winner Steven Price (GRAVITY, 2013) provides an incredible mix of music, while Chung-Hoon Chung’s cinematography, Marcus Rowland’s Production Design, and Odile Dicks-Mireaux’s costumes all nearly steal the show. But of course, that can’t possibly happen thanks to the stupendous performances from Anya Taylor-Joy and (especially) Thomasin McKenzie. These are two of the finest young actors working today, and we will be fortunate to watch their careers develop.

Edgar Wright is having quite a year. He’s already delivered the terrific documentary, THE SPARKS BROTHERS, and now comes what is his best work yet. You may know his work on BABY DRIVER (2017) or the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy that kicked off with SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004). Here, he playfully bounces between genres serving up time travel, a murder mystery, the Soho history, a memorable soundtrack, surreal dream and ghost sequences, a touch of romance, and that previously mentioned ‘slasher’ scene. A final tip of the cap to Diana Rigg, whose career spanned her role as Emma Peel in “The Avengers” (from the 60’s), her time as a Bond girl in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1969), and ultimately as Olenna Tyrell in “Game of Thrones”.

Opens in theaters on October 29, 2021

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