PAPER SPIDERS (2020)

September 29, 2020

Boston Film Festival (2020, virtual)

 Greetings again from the darkness. There are many reasons that might force a kid to grow up too fast. But when it’s in conjunction with having to care for a parent, we can consider it ill-fated. Director Inon Shampanier co-wrote the script with his wife, Natalie Shampanier, and they adeptly handle a story that, in lesser hands, could be over-wrought and not believable. Instead, they benefit from two excellent performances and deliver an emotional and poignant tale of mother and daughter and mental illness.

Lili Taylor stars as Dawn, mother to straight-A high school senior Melanie, played by Stefania LaVie Owen (“Messiah”). We first meet them while on a rainy day campus tour. Dawn is direct in expressing her wish that Melanie remain close to home for college, while ambitious Melanie wants to attend her late father’s alma mater, USC, on a full academic scholarship. It’s clear mother and daughter have a close relationship, but something is a bit off about Dawn, and we get our answer soon enough.

As the new neighbors are moving in, the truck backs into a tree that Dawn’s husband planted years earlier. Dawn flips out, setting off a chain of events where she is convinced the new neighbor is spying on her, tormenting her, and endangering her. Of course, there is no proof of any of this, and the further Dawn slips, the more difficult it is for Melanie to carry the burden of school, a social life, and a paranoid-delusional mother.

Michael Cyril Creighton plays the school counselor that Melanie ropes into meeting with her mother. The scene is played to an awkward comedic effect, but also exemplifies how mental illness creates a stressful environment for everyone involved. Dawn’s agitated attorney boss is played by David Rasche, and Melanie also sets up a profile for mom on an internet dating site, with less-than-hoped-for results. During all of this, Melanie begins a relationship with a rich, alcoholic classmate named Daniel (Ian Nelson), who understandably isn’t equipped to deal with the situation either. Peyton List plays Melanie’s bestie Lacy, and Max Casella has a couple of scenes as the Private Investigator Dawn hires to surveil the neighbor. All in all, it’s a cluster of real life twisted up by mental illness.

Lili Taylor is excellent, and makes sure she keeps Dawn’s actions in the believable-yet-sufferable mode. But the film really belongs to Stefanie LaVie Owen. This is a staggeringly good performance from the young actress, and she quietly conveys a strength in the face of shock and frustration, and the unfair burden she must carry. The film is a reminder that we don’t get to pick our family, and the responsibilities can feel overwhelming at times. It’s not a horror film, but rather one filled with personal horrors – and the film’s title will make sense by the end.

 

 


KAJILLIONAIRE (2020)

September 24, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. A single month with new releases from both Charlie Kaufman (I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS) and Miranda July, is almost enough to make this movie lover forget for a moment that we are suffering through a global pandemic, raging forest fires, and the most obscene presidential campaign of my lifetime. Ms. July is an absurdly talented writer and filmmaker, and it’s her first feature length film since THE FUTURE (2011). Prior to that, she served up ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW (2005), and has a unique way of displaying her strange life observations. She and Kaufman are masters of quirk, and excel in twisting our minds.

Evan Rachel Wood stars as Old Dolio Dyne, daughter of Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (an unrecognizable Debra Winger). This is an oddball family of petty crime con artists who live in a run down, unused office next to the Bubbles, Inc. factory. And yes, they make bubbles in the factory … bubbles that seep through the walls into the office where this family sleeps. One of their scams is on the landlord (a surreal character himself) who has to explain to an always-negotiating Robert that “rent is an installment”.

The first part of the film allows us to get to know the family members. We see them pull off stealing mail from a neighboring post office box, and returning stolen goods for the reward. Ms. Wood stays attired in an oversized green track suit jacket, and has lowered her speaking voice by an octave, adding impact to her monotone liners. She’s socially awkward, and likely on the spectrum as she seems to be the smartest of the bunch. Daddy Robert is a control freak and has an emotional disability in regards to California earthquake tremors. He and Theresa show no signs of affection towards each other or Old Dolio.

An airline baggage scam results in the family meeting Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), an eager to join the grifters woman, whom Old Dolio sees as her replacement as both a daughter and partner. Jealousy ensues. Melanie is contrasted to Old Dolio by her bubbly personality, and by a wardrobe that is significantly more revealing than a tattered track suit. Old Dolio watches uneasily as Melanie is soon receiving the attention from Robert and Theresa that their own daughter craves.

The second half evolves into a film not so much about cons or heists (the film admits it’s no OCEANS 11), as about family dynamics. The twists and turns find Melanie helping Old Dolio break free of parental over-control in order to experience independence … and pancakes. Learning about warmth and affection from “normal” families is eye-opening for her, and sometimes a little confusing for us to follow.  Who is scamming whom, and when are they telling the truth?

Miranda July has created a crime-drama-comedy (dark comedy), with plenty of space to let the characters and dialogue breathe. “I’m Mr. Lonely” by Bobby Vinton kicks in periodically, and the score from Emile Mosseri (THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO) complements it well. On the heels of last year’s team of family scamsters in PARASITE, this shaggy group has never met a swindle they wouldn’t try. And they never expected it to backfire with their own daughter. The divide between those who like the film and those who don’t was pretty clear after Sundance, and Miranda July will likely never be one to appeal to the masses. But for those of us who connect with her oddball way of seeing life, we appreciate the focus on what makes a family of outsiders click … especially when a superb performance from Evan Rachel Wood drives the film.

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ALL ROADS LEAD TO PEARLA (2020)

September 24, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Rural, small town America forms an appealing backdrop for filmmakers due to the great divide: those who are desperate to “shake the dust off” and head for greener grass, and those who can’t imagine any other way of life. In his first feature length film, writer-director-editor-producer Van Ditthavong seizes on the small town atmosphere to create a sense of danger that complements the above-mentioned divide.

Alex MacNicoll stars as Brandon, a high school wrestler in non-stop training mode – replete with nose bleeds, early morning runs, and the quest to cut weight. Brandon lives in a trailer with his mother (Morgana Shaw) who has never gotten over the death of Brandon’s beloved brother. She’s an aggressive griever and takes out her anger on Brandon, leaving him squarely in the “can’t wait to get out of this town” mode. Brandon and Ellie (Paige McGarvin), the local grocery checker, are attracted to each other, yet, despite her warning, Brandon falls for the wicked charms of the mysterious bad girl Pearla (Addison Timlin, FALLEN). Naïve Brandon knows nothing of the town’s criminal underbelly, but Pearla is connected to the psychotic Oz (Dash Mihok, “Ray Donovan”), who is part of it.

Mihok seems to revel in playing the deranged Oz. He expertly balances his scenes as a vicious mask-wearing, gun-toting thug with his small town country-bumpkin mentality … one who spells bidet, “b-a-d-a-y”. Somehow in a town this small, almost no one is who they appear to be. This certainly includes Coach Baker (played by Nick Chinlund, who you’ll likely recall from CON AIR), the motivating wrestling coach with a dark side. Also in the ‘bad guy’ mix are Cowboy Loy (Corin Nemac) who is after revenge on Pearla, and shop owner Mamo (Tina Parker), who seems to control the local crime element, or at least tries to – “Nobody steals from me”.

Brandon’s English class covers a pertinent passage from Orwell’s “1984”, and his big dream involves saving enough money to drive his truck to El Paso for a job on an oil rig. There is some similarity in tone to the Coen Brothers’ classic BLOOD SIMPLE (1984), but of course, Mr. Ditthavong is not yet at that level as a filmmaker. However, for a low budget film that sometimes mixes up day and night, it benefits from nice performances and an atmosphere of dread. The entertainment value is such that I look forward to more projects from the cast and Van Ditthavong.

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BLACKBIRD (2020)

September 17, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Even though death is imminent for each of us, we don’t all get the opportunity to say goodbye to loved ones. For those who do, it may not go as smoothly as they’d imagined. This is especially true if they are choosing to end things on their own terms due to a terminal illness. Roger Michell (NOTTING HILL, 1999; VENUS, 2006) directs this remake of the 2014 Danish film SILENT HEART (directed by Bille August), both written by Christian Torpe.

Family matriarch Lily (Oscar winner Susan Sarandon) has a terminal illness, and has arranged for the family to return home for one final get-together. See, Lily, with the assistance of her doting doctor husband Paul (Sam Neill) is planning to ‘go’ on her own terms, while it’s still physically possible for her to take the medicinal potion. “Death with dignity”, or euthanasia, is becoming a more frequent topic in films and conversation, despite still being illegal in most states. Of course, the legal and moral questions are heavily debated, but when it’s a family member, it’s the emotions that heat up.

First to arrive is eldest daughter Jennifer (Oscar winner Kate Winslet) and her husband Michael (Rainn Wilson, “The Office”) and their son Jonathan (Anson Boon, CRAWL). Kate is the uptight, demanding type who is always judging others – including her nerdy well-meaning husband, and her free-spirited son. The younger daughter Anna (Mia Wasikowska) arrives with her partner Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus, “The Killing”), and it’s immediately clear that Jennifer and Anna are personality opposites (with some baggage), and that Anna is carrying an unspoken burden. Last to arrive is long-time family friend Liz (Lindsay Duncan), who is so close to Lily and Paul, that the family photographs show her on many family vacations and events over the years.

This has the look and feel of a stage presentation, as most of the scenes are filled with dialogue and occur within the confines of the stunning east coast home, apparently designed by Lily. There is a family walk along the beach and dunes, but most of the run time is filled with interpersonal interactions – some pleasant, some not pleasant at all. In fact, an early (by a couple of months) Christmas family dinner is sprinkled with pot smoking and emotional outbursts. It turns out, not surprisingly, that some of the secrets previously kept, find their way out into the open causing a few bumps in Lily’s farewell weekend.

The complexities of family dynamics are amplified in this situation. Who is ready and who isn’t, and why, becomes a topic of multiple discussions. We never really learn the meaning of the film’s title, but we do enjoy the work of so many fine actors. You might recall Susan Sarandon played a dying woman more than 20 years ago in STEPMOM (1998), and this movie blends two memorable and recent films: FRANKIE with Isabelle Huppert, and HERE AWHILE with Anna Camp. Saying goodbye is never easy, but it sure beats missing the chance.

In theaters and On Demand beginning September 18, 2020

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THE NEST (2020)

September 17, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. I’m not sure how to officially protest, but this is writer-director Sean Durkin’s first feature film since the excellent and thought-provoking MARCY MARTHA MAY MARLENE in 2011.  Okay, he directed a TV mini-series (“Southcliffe”) in that span, but there really should be some kind of ordinance mandating (or at least pleading with) Mr. Durkin to share his art more frequently. His approach is not conventional, and it challenges the eye and mind. The story doesn’t move at the pace we’ve come to expect, and the characters – though quite believable – don’t always act the way we expect.

Jude Law stars as Rory O’Hara, a business man with big dreams … dreams far bigger than his work ethic. Carrie Coon (“Fargo”, GONE GIRL) co-stars as his wife Allison. This husband and wife couldn’t be more different. Where Rory is the big-talking blow-hard who, Allison is the down-to-earth horse trainer. Oona Roche plays teenage daughter Samantha, and Charlie Shotwell (CAPTAIN FANTASTIC, 2016) is the younger Benjamin. Durkin does a nice job with the family set-up in the first few minutes of the film. We get a sense of each, as well as the family dynamics. There is a great shot of Rory sitting idly at his desk, and soon after he wakes up Allison with a cup of coffee and the announcement that they need to move to London.

The film is set in the 1980’s (the Reagan-Thatcher era), and Rory’s desperation to prove his business acumen is on full display when he meets his old (now new again) boss Arthur (Michael Culkin). Rory is a social climber, intent on keeping up with the Joneses (or whatever they’re called in London), and he’s referred to as “Old British – New American”. He takes it as a compliment, but we soon witness Rory as little more than a fast-talking salesman. A restaurant scene featuring Allison, Rory, and his co-worker Steve (Adeel Akhtar) is brilliantly played, as Rory’s professional life begins to unravel at a pace matching that of his family life.

We see each of the family members cut loose in their own way, in an attempt to deal with the strain. Timid Benjamin lashes out at school. Samantha throws a wild bash at the family home. Allison guzzles gin and lets go on the dance floor. Speaking of the family home – it’s an old mansion that is the loudest symbol of Rory’s stretch to impress. The film seems to tease us a couple of time in regards to possible paranormal activity within the home, but that’s simply Durkin’s misdirection. The only thing rotten or haunted is the make-up of the family. Their domestic dysfunction is horror in its own right.

Rory’s delusions of grandeur and worshipping of money are finally thrown back in his face during a tremendous scene of Taxicab philosophy. When asked what he does for a living, Rory answers, “I pretend to be rich”, in what may be his only moment of clarity. Jude Law is superb as the charming guy we don’t really like, and Carrie Coon goes toe-to-toe as his polar opposite, and she’s exceptional. Mr. Durkin and cinematographer Matyas Erdely (SON OF SAUL, 2015) keep us off balance with the fascinating shots within the mansion, and startling close-ups that make a point. There is certainly no abundance of light, but this isn’t the type of family that the spotlight tends to find. It’s likely to be a divisive film not embraced by mainstream audiences, but adored by those who crave projects that are creative and different. It played Sundance prior to the pandemic, and now we have to hope we aren’t forced to wait another 9 years for the next Sean Durkin film. Although I will I have to.

In theaters and VOD September 18, 2020

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LOST GIRLS & LOVE HOTELS (2020)

September 17, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The temptation here is to compare director William Olsson’s latest film to FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. While the two films do share the foundation of best-selling adult erotica novels, this film is darker and grittier, and doesn’t treat the lead as a cartoon character. Catherine Hanrahan wrote both the novel and the screenplay, a likely contributing factor to the more grounded feel to the setting and characters.

Alexandra Daddario stars as Margaret, a young woman living on her own in Tokyo. She works days as an English “pronunciation” teacher at a Flight Attendant Academy. In the evening she imbibes at a local dive bar with other ex-pats (Carice van Houten, Andrew Rothney) before heading out under the neon lights in search of that night’s partner at one of the “love hotels”. Margaret is burning the candle at both ends to an extreme. Her alcohol intake would put most sailors to shame. Is Margaret looking for the meaning of life or just trying to forget? That’s the question we spend most of the story trying to answer.

One day Margaret meets Kazu (played by Takehiro Hira), a dashing Yakuza (organized crime) member. She quickly falls under his spell, and the two have a lustful, fast-moving connection. Of course, traditions being what they are, the relationship can never be the same for Kazu as it is for Margaret. In other words, she finally found love, but with the wrong guy. Margaret as narrator offers up wisdom such as, “I tell myself there are no happy endings.” “Things are ragged and messy.” These sentiments perfectly describe her life.

Margaret is challenging to figure out. We feel her pain and confusion and desperation, though we never fully understand what’s driving it. She’s ‘happy and sad’, and more than just another pretty face. In fact, this dark world of loneliness and sex finds her starting in a bad place and then sinking lower. However, director Olsson and cinematographer Kenji Katori ensure the film is stylish and atmospheric, and no matter how ugly things get for Margaret, the film itself is quite something to look at.

This is a side of Tokyo we don’t often see, and the love hotels are a sub-culture that set up perfectly for those who have lost hope or control of their life. The city seems to prey on some … no matter how beautiful they are. Kudos to Alexander Daddario for taking on this role. She’s been around for a while with memorable appearances in “True Detective” (Season One), SAN ANDREAS (2015), and BAYWATCH (2017). It’s nice to see her go deeper and darker, and let’s hope it opens up some new opportunities for her.

LOST GIRLS & LOVE HOTELS is available on Digital and On Demand September 18, 2020

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I AM WOMAN (2020)

September 10, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Does penning and recording a feminist anthem warrant a film biopic? Well, when the singer is Helen Reddy and the song is “I Am Woman”, the answer is a resounding yes. This is director Unjoo Moon’s first narrative feature film, and she is working with a script from Emma Jensen (MARY SHELLEY, 2017). As with any biopic, its effectiveness comes down to the lead performance. Here, Tilda Cobham-Hervey is both strong and invincible as Ms. Reddy.

We first see a wide-eyed Helen Reddy walking through New York City clutching the hand of her very young daughter Traci after arriving from Australia in 1966. She’s in pursuit of a recording contract, but instead ends up singing at a mostly empty nightclub and living in a roach-infested rundown hotel. It takes almost no time for her to experience multiple instances of sexism and chauvinism. With no prospects for a better life, Helen meets up with fellow ex-pat Lilian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald, PATTI CAKE$, 2017), a journalist who shows her the town and offers her friendship.

Lilian throws a party for Helen, and after locking eyes across the room, Helen meets Jeff Wald (Evan Peters, “American Horror Story”), an up and coming agent at William Morris. By 1968, Wald has convinced Helen that Los Angeles is the place to kick off her singing career, and along with Traci, they move into a beautiful home and fill it with typical California dreaming. Jeff’s managing career starts to build, and Helen gets frustrated at his lack of attention to her career. There are some funny comparisons of Deep Purple, Tiny Tim, and Helen’s singing styles, but finally Capitol Records gives her a shot at recording a single.

Helen’s career takes off, as does her friend Lilian’s, who becomes the ‘Mother of Rock’ with her Rock ‘n Roll Encyclopedia, and subsequent reviews and articles. In fact, Ms. Roxon deserves a biopic or documentary highlighting her influence on rock journalism. As Helen puts out hit records, her husband Jeff is managing many successful acts. Money is pouring in (and out) and in contrast to Helen’s common sense manner, Jeff partakes of drugs and alcohol to extremes. Of course, the key component of Helen’s career and the movie is in regards to her writing the title song … a song that the skeptical executives of Capitol Records said made her sound “too angry”.

It was Lilian who introduced the women’s movement to Helen, but Helen was inherently ambitious and strong-willed … it ended up being the perfect match. Reddy supported the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), even as Phyllis Schlafly fought hard against it. Helen’s 1972 song “I Am Woman” became a huge hit, and later the anthem for a movement. But Helen Reddy’s story isn’t all rainbows and unicorns, and despite a dose of clichés, and some overacting on the part of Peters, the movie does an admirable job showing how she reacted to the challenges.

Director Moon’s husband Dion Beebe (Oscar winner for MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, 2005) is the cinematographer, and he does nice work with the stage performances, as well as the more intimate moments. However, it’s Ms. Cobham-Hervey who stands out. I’ve only previously seen her in HOTEL MUMBAI (2018), and she captures the determination and charisma of Helen Reddy. We see her strength as she instills life lessons in her kids, and goes toe-to-toe with her husband. It’s an impressive performance.

The movie shows us Helen’s 1982 Las Vegas act, and we hear most, if not all, of her hits, “Delta Dawn”, “Leave Me Alone” (actually a pretty annoying song), “You and Me Against the World”, “Angie Baby”, and obviously, “I Am Woman”. Later, in 1989, we see a grown up Traci talk her retired mother into performing her most famous song at the Washington DC rally of the National Organization of Women. It’s quite a moment that encapsulates the empowerment that Helen Reddy devoted her life to. The movie doesn’t go there, but it’s unfortunate that Ms. Reddy has been afflicted with dementia since 2015. Like all great artists, her work will survive her.

In select theaters and VOD on September 11, 2020

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I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS (2020)

September 3, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. We should never look to Charlie Kaufman to pull us out of the pandemic doldrums, although he is an absurdly talented writer who specializes in unusual plots and oddball characters. Mr. Kaufman is also an over-thinker and a non-stop thinker – I would imagine his brain rarely goes quiet. This time out, he directs his own adaptation of Iain Reid’s novel, and the result is a mind and time bending existential crisis that leaves us feeling a bit down. Yet, as always, Kaufman’s work keeps our minds racing.

Jessie Buckley, who was so terrific in WILD ROSE (2019), stars as The Young Woman going on a blizzardy road trip with Jake (Jesse Plemons, THE IRISHMAN, 2019), her boyfriend of the last six weeks or so. They are headed to visit Jake’s parents who live in a “farmy” and remote area. Act 1 is spent in the car as the wipers flap, and the woman and Jake hold awkward conversation. We, as the audience, listen to her inner thoughts, including, “I’m thinking of ending things.” She is truly an outstanding actress, and carries much of the weight with this one.

The woman is not really unnamed, in fact, throughout the movie, she has multiple names including Lucy and Louisa. And character names aren’t the only fluid piece of Kaufman’s puzzle. She is variously labeled as studying Quantum Physics, a writer of poetry, and an artist. Are you confused yet?  If not, you will be.

Act 2 takes place at the farm house where Jake’s parents live, and it shifts the film from awkward to bizarre. Toni Collette (HEREDITARY, 2018) and David Thewlis (“Fargo”) play his mother and father, both excited for the visit, but unconventional, to say the least, in their social graces. Ms. Collette over-laughs just beyond the point of perplexing and nudges the beginning of downright weird. She and Thewlis are exceptional in their ability to keep Lucy off-balance, and Jake hyper-annoyed. We aren’t sure what to make of what we are seeing … and neither is Lucy. While none of these folks takes a single bite of the dinner spread, the tone turns to surreal. Overlapping time lines of past, present, and future become haunting and hypnotic.

The film itself is disorienting, and Act 3 does little to help us regain our equilibrium. Jake and Lucy finally start their drive back, as the snow begins falling even harder. Throughout the production, Kaufman includes references to William Wordsworth, Pauline Kael, Andrew Wyeth, Mussolini, and more. He also inserts clips of a high school janitor (played by Gus Boyd) as he goes about his duties. This janitor is part of a finale featuring an animated pig and a dance number … both of which occur after Jake and Lucy have debated the importance of Cassevetes’ A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, and the performance of Gena Rowlands.

Oklahoma plays a role as both a setting and a reference musical, and a stop for ice cream at Tulsey Town, adds to the oddity and the feeling of dread that encompasses us for much of the movie (when we aren’t chuckling at the absurdities). Kaufman mixes genres with glee – horror, comedy, and psychological thriller all lead us to a dance scene and many unanswered questions about what is real and what is only in Lucy’s mind. We never see what attracted these two to each other, but we do wallow in their misery and discomfort. Charlie Kaufman’s previous screenplays include such brilliance as ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, and ADAPTATION, although this one may have more in common with his SYNECHDOCE, NEW YORK – a film that can wrestle with this one over which is his least accessible. An existential film where past, present, and future mingle and bizarre observations are made on aging and memory, can only fit into Charlie Kaufman’s oeuvre. It will surely make you think, though it may end with you asking ‘why?’

Netflix September 4

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THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD (2020)

August 27, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. One need not be a Dickens expert to enjoy this re-imagining of his “The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account)”. Yes, that’s the novel’s actual title, so there is little wonder it’s typically referred to by only the main character’s name.

The film opens with David Copperfield (Dev Patel, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE) reading his autobiography to a mesmerized audience in a beautiful theatre. Yes, we hear the iconic opening line, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life …”, and then Copperfield turns and walks into the backdrop which comes alive as he, in fact, steps into his own life. The film is episodic in structure as we are presented with segments of Copperfield’s life that shaped his writing – from his birth at The Rookery, to his inquisitive nature as a young boy, through his cruel banishment to factory work, on to his life living with his eccentric aunt and his time at boarding school, and finally, with his time as a proctor, courting Dora, and focusing on writing. It’s a fascinating life, with many elements pulled (or enhanced) from Dickens’ own.

Director Armando Iannucci (IN THE LOOP, creator of “Veep”) and co-writer Simon Blackwell are frequent collaborators renowned for their expertise in satire. Iannucci is an admitted fan and student of Dickens, and he’s assembled quite a sterling cast for his take on the classic story. In addition to Patel as the older Copperfield, we have Jairaj Varsani in his first film as young David, rising star Morfydd Clark (PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES, 2015) in dual roles including the enchanting Dora Spenlow, Hugh Laurie as the King Charles (and his head) obsessed Mr. Dick, Aneurin Barnard (DUNKIRK) as David’s friend Steerforth, Darren Boyd and Gwendoline Christie as the wicked Murdstones, Peter Capaldi (“Doctor Who”) as the dodgy Mr. Micawber, Daisy May Cooper as trusted handmaid Peggotty, Nikki Amuka-Bird as the concerned Mrs. Steerforth, Benedict Wong as the sherry-loving Mr. Wickfield, and Ben Whishaw is a standout as conniving Uriah Heep. And if somehow that’s not enough, the brilliant and eclectic Tilda Swinton shines as Aunt Betsey Trotwood.

Each of the segments brings something different to the party – some of it bleak, and some of it cheery. Of course the dialogue has dashes of humor, but much of the comedy comes courtesy of the talented cast. It’s been said of writers that they should write what they know, and David Copperfield literally writes what he lives … through piles of scraps of paper, each holding a moment of life or the essence of a character. Watching this is a bit like camping out in a writer’s head and twisting through their thoughts … Mr. Dickens would be proud.

Opens wide in theaters on August 28, 2020

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FATIMA (2020)

August 27, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. I’m not Catholic and did not grow up learning much about Catholicism. However, I have heard the story of Fatima, Portugal and the 3 young shepherds who claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary. Writer-Director Marco Pontecorvo and co-writers Valerio D’Annunzio and Barbara Nicolosi deliver a dutiful re-telling of the events that led up to the Miracle of the Sun.

The movie begins in 1989 as Professor Nicols (Harvey Keitel) visits Sister Lucia (Sonia Braga), now an octogenarian, at her nunnery. The professor is quite the skeptic, but it’s crucial to his new book project that he question the Sister about what she experienced in 1917. We then flash back to that era when 10 year old Lucia (Stephanie Gil) and her cousins, 7 year old Jacinto (Alejandra Howard) and 8 year old Francisco (Jorge Lamelas) are youngsters working as shepherds for the family flock of sheep. One day, a vision appears to the three children. It’s the Virgin Mary (Joana Ribeiro) offering words of hope and a request for praying and strong faith.

Of course kids are kids, so their secret gets spilled almost immediately. As you would expect, no one believes them. Not their family or those in the small Portugal village. The townspeople gather regularly in the square to hear the Mayor (Goran Visnjic) read the names of the local boys and men who have been killed in war. It’s a gut-wrenching occurrence for all involved, and yet another opportunity for the mean-spirited folks to accuse the kids of lying about what they’ve seen. The local priest (Joaquim de Almeida) tries to frighten them out of the story, and even Lucia’s mother (Lucia Moniz) scolds and belittles her.

“The faith of a child” has rarely been more evident than with young Lucia. She stays strong despite being ostracized by the villagers, the church, and even her family. The film makes clear observation about faith and religion. What is religion but believing and having faith in something intangible – something that can’t be seen or touched. Director Pontecorvo delivers a faith-based film, yet one that is not preachy. It does make us wonder why the religious leaders are themselves so lacking in true faith, and why the politician is envious of the youngsters who draw an audience. Photographs of that day in 1917 … the “Miracle of the Sun” … are shown as part of the closing credits, while Andrea Bocelli’s remarkable voice sings out. It’s a low-budget film with some overacting (from adults), but the message and the performance of young Stephanie Gil make it worthwhile.

Available in theaters and On Demand August 28, 2020

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