THE KILLING OF TWO LOVERS (2021)

May 13, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. The film opens with a man pointing a gun at a sleeping couple. We hold our breath in anticipation until the tense moment abruptly passes. At its most extreme moments, life can push people to their emotional and physical limits, and that’s what we see with David, played exceptionally well by Clayne Crawford (TV series: “Lethal Weapon”, “Rectify”).

The foreboding of that opening scene cloaks the entire film with an inevitability that we never shake. David is living with his ailing father (Bruce Graham) right down the street from Niki (Sepideh Moafi, “The Deuce”), his high school sweetheart, and the mother of his teenage daughter and three younger sons. David and Niki are in the midst of a trial separation, in which they’ve agreed to see other people while also trying to work things out. They even try “date night”, which is where it becomes painfully clear to us that Niki not only has a new boyfriend (Chris Coy), but she’s doing well at her job, and is looking to the future. It’s likely she agreed to the separation to make the transition easier on David, whose pride will not allow him to accept the break-up of his family.

David’s a loving father, but he lacks the emotional maturity to handle the situation. The strain of it all has him simmering with rage – even as he hustles for manual labor jobs and tends to his dad. His dream of being a singer-songwriter is in the distant past and now he’s in crisis mode. Even his daughter Jesse (Avery Pizzuto) advises him of Niki’s situation. This is a small town with wide open spaces, but David can barely breathe, and this is perfectly captured by cinematographer Oscar Ignacio Jimenez.

Robert Machoian is the writer-director-producer-editor, and he keeps the characters and situation grounded in reality and familiarity. He was co-director with Rodrigo-Ojeda Beck of GOD BLESS THE CHILD, a film I saw at the 2015 Oak Cliff Film Festival in Dallas, and he possesses a distinct feel for the little things that seem big in life. Crawford expertly captures the essence of a man caught in a grim situation. I would have liked to have seen another interaction between he and Chris Coy, but what we do see is chilling. Take special note of the sound effects from Peter Albrechtsen – highly unusual, but effective in helping us understand the chaos inside David’s head. Mr. Machoian is a filmmaker to follow.

Available in select theaters and VOD on May 14, 2021

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PROFILE (2021)

May 13, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. French journalist Anna Erelle documented her month-long correspondence with an ISIS terrorist in her 2015 book, “In the Skin of a Jihadist.” Her experience resulted in a fatwa being issued for her … basically an Islamic death sentence on her head. Based on (more like influenced by) Ms. Erelle’s story, writer-director Timur Bekmambetov (ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER, 2012) and co-writers Brittany Poulton and Olga Kharina bring us a movie version via computer screen storytelling.

Valene Kane (“The Fall”) stars as Amy Whittaker, a British freelance journalist with a bright idea for an important story. With so many western girls being recruited by ISIS and sold as sex slaves, Amy decides to track down a recruiter and gain intel on how the process works. She does this by creating new Facebook and Skype accounts under the fictitious name of Melody Nelson, an “almost” 20 year old new convert to Islam who just doesn’t fit in to her current world. With the beep of a new post, Melody is contacted by Bilel, a terrorist and ISIS recruiter, whose profile expertly blends cat videos with bombings and beheadings.

Bilel (Shazad Latif, “Star Trek: Discovery”) is handsome and charming. He talks the talk and walks the walk as both a terrorist and man who can seduce vulnerable young women via FaceTime. There is a lot happening on Amy’s/Melody’s screen at any given time. The pop ups come fast and frequently from her hard-nosed news editor Vick (Christine Adams, “Black Lightning”), curious best friend Kathy (Emma Cater), confused boyfriend Matt (Morgan Watkins), and IT specialist Lou (Amir Rahimzadeh), himself the son of a Muslim. As if all that isn’t enough, YouTube videos come and go, and Melody is constantly googling the latest topic of conversation so she doesn’t give away her ruse.

Artistic license is taken with her in-the-moment research and blunders. Although Ms. Kane is strong in the role, Amy never comes across as a professional journalist on a job. She does, however, expertly play to the stresses – rent due, concerned boyfriend, social commitments, dual personas, work deadlines, and the social media chaos that comes with flirting with terrorists or “making friends with jihadists”. It’s just impossible to imagine a job like this wouldn’t find all parties better prepared and protected.

Still, the reality of young women being seduced and recruited by terrorists is quite real, and this should generate fear in every parent. I kept thinking “that wouldn’t happen”, all the while my stomach churned with the tension. It’s the reality of the threat that creates the fear, but director Bekmambetov effectively uses the online interactions to create a current and urgent scenario.

In theaters on May 14, 2021

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THE MAN IN THE HAT (2021)

May 12, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Who is the woman in the picture? What did the five men toss in the river? Why are those men chasing the man in the hat? Why is that other man wet? If the man in the hat is running from the five men, why does he keep running into the same people? What are those two measuring now? Why doesn’t anyone (ok, almost no one) speak? Why are there so many questions, and why, by the end, do we not care that most go unanswered?

John-Paul Davidson, known mostly as a travel documentarian, and Stephen Warbeck, an Oscar-winning composer, have teamed up as co-directors and co-writers to deliver an unusual and whimsical road trip movie that tips a cap to the silent comedy films of yesteryear. Adding to the unusual elements is Ciaran Hinds starring as the titular man in the hat. Mr. Hinds is a long-time terrific actor, but not one we think of for jocular comedies requiring exaggerated facial expressions, physical pratfalls, and squeezing into a tiny Fiat for a back roads drive through rural France.

As the film opens, the man in the hat spends the day sharing a table with the woman’s photo at a charming riverside café. That evening, while still seated at the table, he witnesses 5 grown men pile out of a clown car Citroen and dump what appears to be a body into the river. The man escapes with the framed photo and one of the film’s recurring gags is the close calls he has with the five men as they drive through the countryside. The film plays a bit like Homer’s Odyssey in that the only real story occurs as the man interacts with various folks he meets along the way. The Damp Man is played by the always interesting Stephen Dillane, and a lovely woman on a bicycle who exchanges flirtations with hat man is played by Sasha Hails.

Among the strange and wacky paths that cross are a couple of onion-chomping geezers who fix his car, a cluster of singing female mechanics, a solo French biker, and a pair of city workers with a measuring tape and eyes for each other. Music plays a huge role here, which is not surprising given the presence of Mr. Warbeck. Not only does the accompanying music feature an unusual and varied blend of music types, but we also see and hear many local musicians, including Mathilda Homer. And for the finale, music again plays a role, bringing things full circle.

Coming up with a comparison movie is not easy, though one description could be director Michael Winterbottom’s “The Trip” franchise … if Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon were not allowed to speak! This isn’t a laugh out loud type of comedy, rather it’s mostly just pleasant and odd. For a drive through rural France or a chance to watch Ciaran Hinds chase his shoe down a drain, this bizarre little ditty from Davidson and Warbeck will work just fine.

In theaters and on demand on May 14, 2021

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QUEEN MARIE OF ROMANIA (2021)

May 6, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. There are likely those who know less about the history of Romania than I, but that list is pretty short. Co-writers and co-directors Alexis Sweet Cahill of Italy and Brigitte Drodtloff of Germany, along with three other listed co-writers: Gabi Antal, Ioana Manea, and Maria-Denise Teodoru, bring us the more than 100 year-old story of Queen Marie, and it’s “based on True Events” (including the Queen’s own writings).

Roxana Lupu, originally from Romania, plays Queen Marie, a Monarch who likely doesn’t receive the historical credit she deserves. Her husband, King Ferdinand I is played by Daniel Plier, who really isn’t given much to do here … hence the film’s title.  A spectacular opening shot takes us over a frozen river and drops us into Bucharest in 1919. World War I has recently ended, and no one seems to care much about the state of Romania, except Romanians. Having sided with the Triple Entente (Russia, France, and Great Britain), hopes are now fading for a united Romania.

Against the preferences of Romanian Parliament, her husband, and just about everyone else, Marie headed to the Peace Talks being held in Paris … yes, the talks that led to the Treaty of Versailles. Though most tried to encourage her to let the politicians handle the politics, Marie reminded them that she was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and thus is not silenced easily. She forced and maneuvered her way in to meetings with powerful world leaders of the time to negotiate for international recognition (and assistance) of a united Romania.

Above all else, this is the story of strong woman fighting for her country. She goes toe-to-toe with Prime Minister Ion Bratianu (Adrian Titieni), French Prime Minister Clemenceau (Ronald Chenery), and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson (Patrick Drury) in her efforts to be heard. She even battles her own son Prince Carol II (Anghel Damian), who would later become King. Ms. Lupu is excellent in the role, and she has previously played Queen Elizabeth (twice), as well as a Princess and a Grand Duchess, so clearly has the screen presence to pull off such royal and regal roles. The film only teases her attraction to Prince Stirbey (Emil Mandanac), and the personal history between her and her cousin, King George V (Nicholas Boulton).

It’s a period drama with the requisite costumes, hair styles, and set design necessary to whisk us away to a century ago, and mostly we learn there was more to this popular Queen than her commitment to feeding citizens during a difficult time. The closing credits give us archival footage as well as the political developments that occurred. The time period covered is limited, but one that was crucial for a country and her Queen.

Available On Demand and on Digital May 7, 2021

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PERCY VS GOLIATH (2021)

April 29, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. When one thinks of casting a farmer in a legal drama, surely Oscar winner Christopher Walken (THE DEER HUNTER, 1978) is not even on the first two pages of the casting director’s list. However, lest we forget, a great actor will make a role their own, which is exactly what Mr. Walken does here. Director Clark Johnson (known mostly for his TV acting and directing) is working from a script by co-writers Garfield Lindsay Miller and Hillary Pryor, and it’s based on the true story of Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser, who fought corporate giant Monsanto all the way to the Supreme Court.

Walken as Percy admits, “I save my seeds.” If this were the story of canola seeds that some farmer saves each year for his crops, I’m guessing there would be little interest. But of course this is the story of one independent farmer standing up for the rights of all farmers against agricultural giant Monsanto. This is the age old story of “the little engine that could”, or the high hopes of ‘the little old ant who thought he could move the rubber tree plant.’ Percy and his wife Louise (Roberta Maxwell) are grounded folks – he mostly keeps to himself, and she is known locally for her pie-baking expertise. These are good folks who are working the same land that’s been passed down for generations in his family.

The lives of Saskatchewan farmers Percy and Louise get rocked when, in 1998, Monsanto sues them for the presence of a patented formula in Percy’s canola crop. He’s no dummy, and Percy knows that he has always carefully collected his own seeds each season … just as his father taught him. He’s also a fighter, so Percy enlists local attorney Jackson Weaver (Zach Braff) to handle the case against a sea of Monsanto white man attorneys (yet another battle pitting a little guy against big money). Overly enthusiastic environmental activist Rebecca Salcau (Christina Ricci) offers help to Percy from her organization, and this leads to multiple speaking engagements for him as he literally travels around the world. Their objectives are different – Rebecca wants safe crops (not sprayed with harmful chemicals), while Percy wants independence to farm. Monsanto is there to protect their patented process that increases yields and profits.

There is a 2009 documentary that focuses on Percy Schmeiser, but I have no idea where to find it. The story is fascinating, as it involves unusual characters and the safety of food crops. Supporting work is provided by Luke Kirby and Martin Donovan, though neither are given much to work with. The joy here is in watching Christopher Walken dig in to a role that demands much from him. It’s far removed from the caricatures he often plays these days. Veteran Cinematographer Luc Montpellier (CAIRO TIME, 2009) is stuck in the courtroom a bit too much, but when the camera heads outside, he does his best work. Percy died in October 2020 at the age of 89, and director Johnson includes a photo of Percy and Louise over the closing credits. He was quite a little engine that could … and did.

In Select Theaters, on Digital and On Demand April 30

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FOUR GOOD DAYS (2021)

April 29, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Drug addiction provides bountiful harvesting for emotional message movies, though I’ll admit to some difficulty in relating to the subject matter. Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia (ALBERT NOBBS, 2011) has worked with co-writer Eli Saslow to adapt Saslow’s 2016 Washington Post article, “How’s Amanda: A story of truth, lies and American Addiction”. It’s an all-too-common tale of how addiction ruins lives and tears families apart. If not for two strong lead performances, Garcia’s latest movie would be just ‘another log on the fire’.

The filmmaker has re-teamed with his ALBERT NOBBS star, Glenn Close, who plays Deb, mother to Molly (Mila Kunis), a 10 year drug addict who shows up at mom’s house asking for help “getting clean”. Of course, mom has heard this too many times over the years. See, Molly has not only stolen from her mother and lied to her frequently, but she’s also been through detox/rehab 14 times over those 10 years. Deb initially refuses to let Molly in the house, but relents the next morning and drives her straight to the detox center. The doctor tells her she qualifies for a new magic shot that will block the drug cravings and effects if she can stay clean for four days (hence the film’s title). Any drugs in the system will cause complications, and likely prove fatal.

So Deb babysits Molly, who we learn has two kids by her ex-husband, Sean (Joshua Leonard). Turns out, he’s not such a great guy either. I’m certainly no expert, but it appears to me that Ms. Kunis goes all-in as an addict, replete with rotted teeth, damaged skin, and an attitude that warrants a swift kick. Ms. Kunis was excellent in BLACK SWAN (2010), but it seems she spends most of her time in comedies. She proves again that she has some dramatic chops, and hopefully will continue to pursue more serious roles. Ms. Close, who recently set the record for futility by becoming the first actor with 8 Oscar nominations and no wins, dons yet another terrible wig (ala HILLBILLY ELEGY, 2020) and works very hard to create a full-fledged mother from an underwritten character. The film briefly dabbles with the mother-daughter history of abandonment, but never digs deep enough for real meaning.

Stephen Root is given little to do as Deb’s second husband, and Sam Hemmings has one good scene as Molly’s dad who is confronted by Deb. Clichés abound in the story, yet the underlying message of a parent who refuses to give up on their kid, even when every time the result is disappointment, is grounded in reality. It’s certainly no TRAINSPOTTING (1996) as far as depressing drug addiction stories, but the two leads make it watchable.

In theaters April 30, 2021

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LIMBO (2021)

April 29, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Immigration is an important and hot topic these days, and it should be noted that most countries have challenges with people either trying to get in or trying to get out … and for some, it’s both. Writer-director Ben Sharrock offers a unique and creative look at refugees stuck on a nameless remote Scottish island, awaiting word on their UK asylum request.

Omar (Amir El-Masry, Tom Clancy’s “Jack Ryan” TV series) has escaped the war in Syria, and we learn much about him from listening in on calls to his mother from the only phone booth on the island. An acclaimed musician in Damascus, Omar lugs around his grandfather’s oud (“it’s like a guitar”). As proof of his homesickness, the bulky case never leaves his side, nor does he pull the instrument out to play – music is meant for joyous occasions. Omar shares a small house with three other refugees: Farhad (Vikash Bhai) from Afghanistan, Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) from Ghana, and Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) from Nigeria, with the latter two posing as brothers in hopes of improving their odds for asylum.

Omar is a sullen stone-face who absorbs the racist taunts from young locals (they ask if he makes bombs), and stands in contrast to the more outgoing and optimistic (and darn funny) Farhad. Not only does he idolize Freddie Mercury for “teaching” him English, Farhad, with his ever-present cigarette, also captures a chicken and keeps it as a pet. These refugees regularly attend a class entitled “Cultural Awareness 101”, meant to acclimate those from varying backgrounds to the local customs and culture. These segments are mined beautifully for comedic effect, while also giving us insight into all those involved. There are also references to Chet Baker, Donnie Osmond, and the TV series, “Friends”.

This is a terrific film, as well as an odd one. Many of the shots from cinematographer Nick Cooke are static and sparse in style, and though focused on the individuals, the camera also captures much of the isolation of the island. These visuals are stunning in both their simplicity and relevance. It’s a dramedy unafraid to be absurd in a moment, while also being enlightening. At times it has the feel of Wes Anderson without the color palette. We aren’t sure what is worse, the weather or the local postal service. Brutal cold envelops the newcomers, while the delivery route of a postal van (and the reactions of the refugees) is a comedic highlight. Even the local market, with its limited spice selection and directions for urination, draws laughter from us.

Despite the comedy, we never lose sight of these folks being stuck in purgatory. Maybe it’s not true camaraderie, but they seem to take some comfort in numbers as they wait. Omar is carrying guilt and feelings of inadequacy as he chose to leave while his older brother Nabil (Kais Nashif) remained in Syria to fight in the war. There is a wonderful “scene” that allows Omar to make peace with their contrasting decisions, and it leads him back to playing music. After all, “a musician who doesn’t play is dead”. The titular term of Limbo often means stuck, and there is also a game of persistence that uses that name, and both definitions work here. We are reminded that regardless of the various cultures, those in the immigration system have their own personal stories and burdens.

Opens in theaters on April 30, 2021

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THE VIRTUOSO (2021)

April 29, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. It seems to this casual observer that once a person makes the career decision to become a hitman (or hitwoman or hitperson), their life expectancy drops significantly, as does their willingness to trust any person they meet, or at least it should. After all, the industry of killing is all about death … it’s simply a matter of whether (this time) you are the one doing the killing, or the one being killed. This neo-noir comes courtesy of writer-director Nick Stagliano (his first feature film in 10 years) and co-writer James C Wolf.

Anson Mount (so good in the “Hell on Wheels” TV series) is the titular Virtuoso. In typical noir fashion, he’s also our narrator, and serves up a detailed explanation of his approach to the profession. He’s methodical and meticulous in his precision and planning, and goes about his business in a professional manner, while maintaining a low profile and adhering to his own code. He even practices his facial expressions in the mirror preparing for the rare social interaction (it’s funnier than it sounds). He does jobs for The Mentor (newly crowned Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins), a former military friend of his dad. Their minimal communication usually involves a name on a scrap of paper. The first job we witness is a “rush” job and collateral damage leaves Virtuoso burdened with guilt – something that is not an asset in this line of work.

It’s the second job that takes up most of the run time. The Mentor provides only “White Rivers” as a hint to the identity of the target, and instructs him to be at the only diner in a place that barely exists as a town. Walking in, he sizes up those in the diner: The Waitress (Abbie Cornish, excellent as Fanny Brawne in BRIGHT STAR, 2009), The Loner (Eddie Marsan, “Ray Donovan”), Handsome Johnnie (Richard Brake), and Johnnie’s Girl (Diora Baird). A bit later, the local Deputy (David Morse) is added to the list of possible targets.

The set-up is fun, and meant to keep us striving to stay one step ahead. Chris Perfetti adds a touch of humor in his two quick scenes as the motel desk clerk, and much of the tete a tete comes courtesy of the Virtuoso and The Waitress. Of course as with most noirs, we viewers figure out what’s going on long before the hero, as the distractions are many. The budding romance offers up some seedy motel lovemaking, and the Virtuoso has an unusual living arrangement in his cabin in the woods. In other words, there are some excellent elements in play here, and it’s difficult to pinpoint why the film doesn’t play a bit better than it does. Mostly it just lacks the suspense delivered by the best in the genre.

Streaming on Digital, On Demand

& Limited Theatrical Release on April30th in Dallas

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THE WHITE TIGER (2021, India)

April 26, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Writer-director Ramin Bahrani (the excellent 99 HOMES, 2014) adapted Aravind Adiga’s 2008 novel, and for his efforts, he was awarded an Oscar nomination for adapted screenplay. The honor is justified thanks to the complexity of the story, though we are never sure if this is satire of, or insight and enlightenment into India’s caste system. Either way, it hooks us early and never lets go.

Adarsh Gourav stars as Balram, and the story is structured via his narration of his own life story as outlined in a letter he drafts to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao prior to his official visit to India in 2010. The timeline stretches from Balram’s youth to the time of the letter, when he describes himself as a Bangalore entrepreneur who rose from poverty to being a self-made man. We are there when Balram overhears the local powerbroker known as The Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar) mention that the family needs a second driver. The ambitious Balram borrows money from Granny (Kamlesh Gill) for driving lessons, and soon he’s at the gate talking his way into the job.

Balram is hired as the driver for The Stork’s son, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) who has returned from his time in the U.S. with an American woman, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) by his side. It’s bizarre to see Balram’s eager-to-please ways contrast with the western approach Ashok and Pinky apply. Whereas servants are usually treated poorly, mixed messages are received by Balram, who ends up sleeping in a parking garage storage room while his masters luxuriate in a Delhi penthouse.

A tragic event occurs leaving Balram betrayed by the family to which he’s displayed nothing but loyalty. The film even takes a wicked shot at the Oscar winning SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008), although the films do share some common themes. This film follows the plight of a servant, and takes a particularly close look at the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. Just how far can one be pushed before standing up or fighting back. Since the film starts where the story ends, we are prepared for the path, though the actual steps are stunning.

Filmmaker Bahrani floats dark comedic undertones, though it’s never really funny – in fact, most of the story is quite serious. Mr. Gourav excels in the lead role as he explains India’s social structure through big belly vs small belly. His journey takes him through multiple personality shifts – the poor villager busting rocks, the eager to impress new servant, the insightful young man who learns a harsh lesson, and finally, the “self-made” man, confident in his abilities and able to overlook his own actions that got him there.

available on Netflix

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ABOUT ENDLESSNESS (2021, Sweden)

April 24, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. A quarter-century once elapsed between feature films for Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson. He only directed a handful of short films between “GILLIAP” (1975) and SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR (2000). Mr. Andersson makes Terrence Malick look prolific. He’s certainly not a traditional filmmaker and this latest is not a typical movie. In fact, its highest and best use may be in a graduate Psychology or Philosophy class, so that the mental capacity of students can be stretched and tested to determine whether Andersson is celebrating life or bemoaning our existence.

The narrator begins most segments with something along the lines of: “I saw a man …”, “I saw a woman …”, “I saw parents …”, and “I saw a couple floating …”. These lead us into static one shot vignettes with little or no dialogue. For example, in the first segment, a woman on a park bench concludes with, “It’s September already.” There is a priest who makes a recurring appearance as one who has lost his faith. In another, parents have lost a son. The emphasis is on the artistic impression and one’s own interpretation.

Over the opening, and again later in the film, we see a couple floating over the ruins of Cologne. It’s Andersson’s take on Chagall’s 1918 painting, “Over the Town”. Another segment is a recreation of Hitler’s bunker in Kukryniksy’s 1946 painting, “The End”. These are simple, stark, low-key snapshots in time. The color palette seems to be off-gray, and the sun never shines in this world – there’s no tanned skin in the bunch. Andersson offers just enough moments of hope/happiness to prevent this from being 80 minutes of full-on depression. We always think he’s trying to tell us something, but can’t always decipher what the intended message is. Like the best art, it’s up to your interpretation, and surely dependent on individual perspective.

Release delayed due to COVID-19

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