MONTANA STORY (2022)

May 27, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Watching two of our most talented young actors do their thing within the framework of old-fashioned storytelling and a breathtaking geographic setting is just about as good as it gets in independent filmmaking. The pacing may be a bit slow for some viewers, but the joy here is in watching two actors own their characters and battle through the emotions that tore apart a family.

Co-writers and co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel previously collaborated on WHAT MAISIE KNEW (2012) and BEE SEASON (2005), and are joined this time by co-writer Mike Spreter. We certainly can debate the script’s handling of specific moments, but Haley Lu Richardson (OPERATION FINALE, 2018, the underrated COLUMBUS, 2017, SPLIT, 2016, and THE BRONZE, 2015) and Owen Teague (best known for the two recent IT movies, and he’s also delivered in two recent films, TO LESLIE and THE COW) are the reason we buy in quickly and stay engaged to the breakthrough.

Cal (Mr. Teague) returns to the ranch where he grew up when he’s notified his father has had a stroke and is in a coma on life support. Cal readies the ranch for a bankruptcy sale and tends to the other business issues while Kenyan nurse Ace (Gilbert Ouwor) takes care of the father. Longtime housekeeper Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero, Winona from “Seinfeld”) helps when she can, but the ranch itself, including some chickens and an arthritic 25-year-old horse, Mr. T, aren’t much better off than Cal’s comatose dad. Cal is shocked when he sees that his estranged sister Erin (Ms. Richardson) has returned in order to say goodbye to their dad.

The film is at its best as Cal and Erin (I’m sure it’s a coincidence that the EAST OF EDEN siblings were named Cal and Aron) strain to avoid the discussion of what caused the split. It takes a while for us to get the details, but the scene is devastating for both characters, and the actors pull it off beautifully. A single night, seven years ago, blew up a family and led to broken trust and pent-up anger and animosity in Erin, and near debilitating guilt and sadness in Cal. Doing the right thing plays a recurring role here in regards to Erin’s high school article, Cal’s decision on Mr. T, and their dad’s job and actions.

Family relationships can be tainted and forever altered by a traumatic event, and rebuilding that trust requires raw pain and emotion … and even then, there are no guarantees. Additional supporting work is provided by Eugene Brave Rock and Asivak Koostachin, each of whom bring a touch of humor to their character (“sentimental horsey girl”) – or perhaps it just seems that way due to the intensity of Erin and Cal. There is a terrific scene where Cal and Erin ‘negotiate’ her spontaneous purchase of a pickup and trailer, and the meaning is hard to miss as Erin educates Cal on Dante’s circles of Hell in “Inferno”. Kudos to rising stars Haley Lu Richardson and Owen Teague for capturing a strained sibling dynamic and showing how trauma can have varying effects. Thanks also to cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (HELL OR HIGH WATER) for the sprawling Montana landscape and mountain vistas. This is a “western” only in the sense that it takes place out west and in near isolation, with most folks only speaking when necessary. It is a kind of showdown between brother and sister, but the weapons are words and memories, not pistols.

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TOP GUN: MAVERICK (2022)

May 22, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Heavy on melodrama. Heavy on cockiness. Heavy on fighter jets. Heavy on nostalgia. Check. Everything that we want and expect in the long-awaited sequel to the 1986 film is present. It’s a movie spectacle featuring one of the few remaining bonafide movie stars front and center, as well as breathtaking action sequences that beg to be experienced on the largest screen possible and with the highest quality audio available. Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr are credited for the characters, while the new screenplay involved collaboration from Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, Christopher McQuarrie, Peter Craig, and Justin Marks. The original film’s director, Tony Scott, passed away in 2012 at age 68, and Joseph Kosinski (OBLIVION, 2013, also starring Tom Cruise) takes the helm.

Callbacks to the original are plentiful, and we get our first in the opening title card – the same one used in 1986 to explain the “Top Gun” training center. Of course, there is one reason we are here, and that’s Tom Cruise. He was only 24 years old in the original, and now lives and exudes the swagger of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. When the film opens, Maverick is an extreme test pilot pushing himself and an experimental aircraft to Mach 10, and yes, this goes against the wishes and order of the program’s Rear Admiral in charge played by a curmudgeonly Ed Harris. It’s a shame that Harris only has a couple of brief scenes, but he is the one that informs Maverick of his new orders to return to Top Gun immediately. His new commanding officer is Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm), who is none too happy about Maverick being back. However, the order came directly from Maverick’s old nemesis/friend, Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer), now a highly decorated Admiral in failing health.

Maverick is disappointed to learn that he has been brought in, not to fly, but to teach a group of Top Gun graduates how to execute an extraordinarily dangerous mission involving extended high speeds at a low altitude, dropping bombs on the uranium enhancement plant protected by a mountain range, and then immediately elevating to a nearly impossible level to avoid a crash – all while being targeted by the enemies radar and defense system. The enemy goes unnamed so that the movie can remain timeless and avoid any type of political backlash. Plus, this film is about thrills and action, not a political statement.

Being back means Maverick crosses paths with Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), who was mentioned briefly in the first film as an Admiral’s daughter. She now owns the local bar, has a daughter, races sailboats, and still carries a bit of a torch for Maverick, although she’s quick to bust his chops whenever possible. However, it’s the pilots he’s charged with training that cause the biggest issue for Maverick. One of them is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller). Rooster is the son of “Goose” (played in the original by Anthony Edwards), who flew with Maverick as his Radio Intercept Officer (RIO) and died in an ejection mishap. Rooster holds Maverick responsible and Maverick is still haunted by his friend’s death. Goose is seen in photos and via flashbacks, and Rooster emulates his dad at the bar’s piano. The conflict between Rooster and Maverick adds complications to the mission – and a bit of melodrama to the entire film.

The newbies (and the Navy) consider Maverick a relic of a bygone era, so of course, ‘instructor’ Maverick takes to the sky to strut his pilot stuff. In addition to Rooster, the standouts in the new group include Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), Bob (Lewis Pullman), and Hangman (Glen Powell), the latter of whom, along with Rooster, tries to recreate that symbiotic relationship we originally saw with Iceman vs Maverick. Teller and Powell are both solid, but this aspect never really clicks like the Rooster vs Maverick piece.

We can’t help but notice that the dramatic elements seem to be more of a focus this time around. The biggest impact comes from the scene where Mavericks visits Admiral Kazansky (Iceman) at his home. Despite his well-known physical limitations, Val Kilmer delivers a memorable performance, and the two actors seem to relish this opportunity. The situation is handled with grace, and we are appreciative of Cruise standing firm in his demand for Kilmer to appear in the film. As for the love story between Penny and Maverick, it had to be a bit frustrating for Ms. Connelly to work so hard on an underwritten role, while Jon Hamm’s constant furrowed brow and barking leaves him coming across as little more than jealous of Maverick.

Obviously it’s the fighter jets and aerial sequences that folks will come for, and spectacular and exhilarating are the best words I can find to describe what we see. I was fortunate to see his in IMAX, and if you have one near you, it’s certainly the preferred viewing format. Thanks to the Navy and the training and equipment received by the cast, there is an authentic feel that’s almost throwback in this day and age of CGI. We sense the speed and gravity pulls, even if we are never in peril. The aircraft carrier sequences are mind-boggling, though it’s jets in the air that provide the energy jolt.

Wise-cracking and heartstring-tugging moments fill the screen, and you can relax knowing Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” is back, while Berlin is thankfully not. Sand volleyball has been replaced by some semblance of shirtless and sweaty beach football as a team-builder, and yes, we get the patented Tom Cruise sprints – three times: on a treadmill, during beach football, and in a forest. The familiar sounds of Harold Faltermeyer’s original score are back, this time enhanced by Hans Zimmer and an ending song by Lady Gaga. Those from the original who are absent this time are the great Tom Skerritt, James Tolkan, Kelly McGillis, and Meg Ryan (whose character is mentioned as having passed away). Producer Jerry Bruckheimer is back, though his partner on the original, Don Simpson, died in 1996 at age 52. Deserving of kudos are cinematographer Claudio Miranda, film editor Eddie Hamilton, and those involved with sound, visual effects, and music. For those feeling the need for speed, this sequel delivers; just embrace the cliches and familiarity, and predictability.

Only in theaters (as it should be) Friday May 27, 2022

Here is my link to my 2013 article when I revisited the original TOP GUN

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MEN (2022)

May 20, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. This is only the third feature film directed by Alex Garland, but his creativity and innovative nature in the first two (EX MACHINA, 2014 and ANNIHILATION, 2018) established him as a writer-director to follow. His latest is certainly deserving of those descriptions, yet it’s also less assessable while being more open to interpretation and worthy of discussion. Reactions from viewers are sure to be varied.

Jessie Buckley, one of the finest actors working today, takes on the lead role in yet another of her unconventional projects. We absolutely respect and admire her risk-taking, and each project benefits from her presence. Some of her recent work includes THE LOST DAUGHTER (2021), I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS (2020), WILD ROSE (2018), and a great arc in the “Fargo” series (Season 4). Here she stars as Harper, a Londoner heading to holiday in the English countryside after the death of her husband. When she arrives at her bucolic Airbnb manor, the serenity is apparent … right up until she meets Geoffrey, the landlord. He’s played by Rory Kinnear (Tanner in the recent James Bond movies, and excellent in the “Penny Dreadful” series and its spinoff). Geoffrey’s awkward social skills involve colloquialisms and country charm to ensure that Harper knows she’s no longer in London.

The country manor is walking distance to town (which apparently consists of a church and pub), and sits alongside a forest, seemingly perfect for nature hikes. Harper’s first walk in the woods has a fascinating scene as she experiments with the echoes of a tunnel by singing notes in harmony with herself. This simple pleasure ends when she notices a nude man apparently stalking her. After calling the local police, she heads to the church where she encounters a rude boy and a vicar who is unsympathetic to her plight. All of these interactions could fit into an interesting story, but filmmaker Garland takes things to another level. Geoffrey, the stalker, the cop, and the vicar are all played by Rory Kinnear … even the boy! Later, we see that Kinnear even plays the pub’s clientele. Since it’s obvious to us, and she doesn’t seem to notice, we can assume this is a major clue for how we are to interpret what’s happening with (and to) Harper.

Flashbacks are employed so that we are able to piece together the strained relationship between Harper and her husband, James (Paapau Essidieu). Her emotional turmoil plays into what’s happening during this rural getaway meant for relaxation, yet often this has a surreal or dreamlike feel, making it challenging to know what is real or what she is imagining. Harper holds the occasional FaceTime with her friend Riley (Gayle Rankin), and the broken signal on these calls may or may not be real … like so much of what we see. Garland’s third act goes a bit bonkers, and includes some icky body horror effects ala Cronenberg. The mythology of Sheela la nig and The Green Man (rebirth) are part of the numerous uses of symbolism throughout.

The film is beautiful to look at thanks to the cinematography of Rob Hardy, and the frequent use of vibrant green jumps off the screen during many scenes. The atmosphere created is primed for something that may or may not pay off by the end, but it’s certainly another artsy creep-fest in the A24 universe. Ms. Buckley proves again what a talent she is, and Mr. Kinnear joins Peter Sellers (“Dr. Strangelove”), among others, in mastering multiple roles. Lesley Duncan’s spiritual and melancholic “Love Song” is the perfect accompaniment for Harper’s drive, and Kinnear’s frequently appearing face enhances the myth that men are all the same – a constant threat lurking for women. Folk horror resurgence continues, and viewers will have to decide if they can reconcile the abundance of symbolism.

Exclusively in theaters on May 20, 2022

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EMERGENCY (2022)

May 20, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. When we discover someone in the midst of a medical emergency, most of us wouldn’t hesitate to call 911 for assistance. In this film, developed from their Sundance award-winning 2018 short film, director Carey Williams and writer K.D. Davila remind us things aren’t always quite so simple. Two best friends and college students, return home to find a white girl passed out in their living room. Since the two young men are black, and their roommate is Latino, their discussion revolves around how the situation will be viewed by paramedics and law enforcement. It’s a terrific premise, and one handled deftly by the filmmakers and cast.

The first act is outstanding as we quickly get a feel for the friendship between Sean (RJ Cyler, “I’m Dying Up Here”) and Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins, “The Underground Railroad”). Sean is the fun-loving one who is constantly vaping for effect, but also paranoid and aware. Kunle is the strait-laced son of two African immigrant doctors. Kunle has been accepted to the PhD program at Princeton, while Sean’s big plan is ensuring he and Kunle become the first black students at Buchannan to attend that evening’s ‘Legendary Tour’ … seven invitation-only frat parties held over the course of one night. Kunle wants to hang with his buddy – just as soon as he finishes with his bacteria specimens (his “babies”) in the campus laboratory.

The early buddy-comedy banter is spot on, and leads us to make assumptions about the type of movie this will be. It’s only after Sean and Kunle stop by the house and discover the girl, that we realize this is a rare buddy-comedy loaded with social commentary. Their gamer-obsessed roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon, “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels”) joins the mission on how best to handle the situation. Carlos catches grief for his fanny pack, which is always filled with granola bars. Sean enjoys teasing Kunle, calling him an “Oreo” for being too white inside, and we hear Kunle described as “Black excellence”. As these three men of color debate the next step – how to provide care to the girl (who has since thrown up on their floor), while also protecting themselves from possibly dangerous racist reactions.

What they don’t know is that while they are arguing, the unconscious girl’s big sister (Sabrina Carpenter) has rallied two friends to go searching. Rather than improve the situation, racial profiling plays a part at just about every turn. The tone of the film shifts when Emma (Maddie Nichols) wakes up and freaks out at the situation. It becomes a comedy of errors in the mode of ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING (1987), only with fear and risk involved. Two sequences in particular standout: when they stop at Sean’s brother’s house to borrow a car, and when they do finally encounter the cops. Both scenes present the paranoia and constant uneasiness felt in these situations.

When utilizing comedy to express social commentary, there is a fine line between effective messaging and too-obvious. Both of these occur during the film, but for the most part, Williams and Davila and the cast are superb in making their points without preaching. The commentary on friendship and racism blends well into entertainment, despite the messages never leaving the screen.

In Select Theaters May 20th

Available worldwide on Amazon Prime Video May 27th

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ANAIS IN LOVE (2022)

April 28, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Barely five minutes in, we have concluded that Anais is a whirlwind of activity. She’s behind on her rent and yet turns the conversation with her landlord to fruit juice and a smoke alarm. This is the first feature film from writer-director Charline Bougeois-Tacquet who benefits greatly with the presence of lead actor Anais Demoustier. I have no idea if the name is a coincidence or whether this was written with her in mind, but we quickly realize that Anais is a mess … a charming mess and one for which hope remains.

Anais is always late. She walks, runs, or rides her bicycle everywhere. Her bright red lipstick is always on display, and she’s claustrophobic and prefers to sleep alone. The constant twinkle in her eye means folks look past her seemingly carefree approach to real life, as she makes the best of each landing spot in her directionless path(s) through each day. We observe and learn all of these things on top of the big secret she’s been keeping from her boyfriend Raoul (Christophe Montenez). During the exchange they have when he breaks up with her, she says, “You are violent in your inertia.” This may be my favorite line of the year. What others view as stability and dependability, Anais views as inertia and unappealing.

When Anais takes Daniel (Denys Podalydes) as a lover, it’s the older, married man who ends it by stating he doesn’t want his life to change. Anais shrugs and turns her attention and affections to Daniel’s wife, Emilie (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, HUMAN CAPITAL, sister of Carla Bruni). Emilie is a famous author and Anais worms her way in by tracking Emilie to Normandy where she’s holding a symposium. Writing, books, and literature play subtle yet key roles throughout … as if Anais is trying to live out so many of the stories she’s read.

If there is anything lacking here, it’s traditional character conflict. Even the surprise collision of Daniel, Emilie, and Anais at the symposium doesn’t pack the dramatic or comedic punch we would expect. Anais is never much concerned, so neither are we as viewers. We are too enamored and intrigued with her energy and spirit to let real life cause consternation. The subplot with Anais’ mother is the closest we see Anais come to ‘normal’ emotions, but even getting to that point, is yet another whirlwind.

In theaters April 29, 2022 and On Demand May 6, 2022

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THE DUKE (2022)

April 26, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. It made headlines in 1961. Francisco Goya’s ‘Portrait of the Duke of Ellington’ was stolen from London’s National Gallery. Director Roger Michell, with a screenplay from Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, dramatize the story so that it’s part comedy and part love story, and thanks to screen veteran James Broadbent, full of charm.

Oscar winner Broadbent (IRIS, 2001) stars as Kempton Bunton. We first see him in the midst of his courtroom trial. Pretty quickly, the film flashes back to 6 months prior. Kempton hasn’t had much luck in keeping his job as a cab driver, or a baker, or any other. He’s a bit of a rabble-rouser, quick to share his unsolicited opinions, and on a constant mission to look out for ‘the little guy.’ He is also a would-be writer who cranks out novels (“Susan Christ”) and plays that never get published, all of which adds to the chagrin of Kempton’s wife, Dorothy, played by Oscar winner Helen Mirren (THE QUEEN, 2006). Dorothy works as a maid, and only desires a simple, steady, and predictable life with her husband … who delivers quite the opposite.

Living in a working-class neighborhood with one of their sons, Jackie (Fionn Whitehead, DUNKIRK), Kempton and Dorothy have an interesting relationship … one that includes contrasting methods of grieving over the death of their daughter. She internalizes while he writes about it. Kempton’s latest protest is against the government buying back the Goya painting while so many citizens suffer the indignity of paying a television licensing tax. He insists the government should spend the money on the people, not on frivolities like art. It’s during this phase when we wonder if son Jackie is learning more from dad than we originally suspect.

Director Michell includes some fascinating shots, including the theft of the painting, which leaves Edvund Munch’s “The Scream” in the video wake. We also see the scene in the 1965 James Bond film DR NO which features the Goya painting and a little inside humor. There are also numerous shots with Broadbent superimposed into archival footage of 1960’s London, and actual newsreels from the era. The tone shifts when Kempton turns himself and the painting into the authorities. His courtroom behavior plays like a stand-up comedy routine, while his barrister (played by Matthew Goode) uses Kempton’s everyman-likability to his advantage.

Director Roger Michell passed away in September 2021. He’s best known for NOTTING HILL (1999) and VENUS (2006), and unfortunately, he didn’t get to see his final film released in theaters. Broadbent’s charm is on full display here, and the film easily could have gone deeper into the topics of social inequality and governmental mismanagement. Instead, it’s more sentimental and funny than enlightening … an outlandish heist story that plays just as well as a gentle love story. And that’s a pretty good cause for Mr. Michell the filmmaker.

Opens in NYC and LA on April 22, 2022 and nationwide on April 29, 2022

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“Bring a Friend Back to the Movies” will provide one complimentary ticket to customers who purchase a ticket directly from the Angelika website, app or in theaters to see “The Duke” during the first week of its release. Select Angelika locations will also offer each ticket holder for “The Duke” a specially priced split of bubbly to share with their friend in celebration of their return to the movies


PARIS, 13TH DISTRICT (2022)

April 15, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Jacques Audiard is one of the filmmakers who has won my cinematic loyalty through his consistently thought-provoking and entertaining films. His five features since 2005 have all been excellent: THE BEAT THAT MY HEART SKIPPED (2005), A PROPHET (2009), RUST AND BONE (2012), DEEPHAN (2015), THE SISTERS BROTHERS (2018). This latest is a different kind of story for Audiard, and it’s based on the stories from animator Adrian Tomine. Audiard adapted the screenplay with Nicholas Livecchi, Lea Mysius, and Celine Sciamma (writer and director of PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE, 2019). The result is a unique vision of modern-day love set in an area of Paris that is rarely featured in films.

Audiard gives us a REAR WINDOW-esque opening that lands on a couple evidently singing naked Karaoke. We are then informed, “It began like this.” Emilie (newcomer Lucie Zhang) is a tele-salesperson augmenting her income by renting out a room in her apartment … well, it’s her grandmother’s apartment, but she is confined to a nursing home suffering from Alzheimer’s. Emilie wants a female roommate and Camile is the first to schedule a showing. Only Camile (Makita Samba) isn’t female. Instead, he’s a handsome teacher working on his doctorate, and since there is a spark between he and Emilie, she agrees to let him move in. The attraction plays out as you would imagine, right up until Camile slams on the brakes and informs a frustrated Emilie that he has no intention of being a couple, and soon invites another lady friend over for an evening of intimacy. The micro-aggressions between Emilie and Camile escalate, and soon he moves out.

Next we meet thirty-something Nora (Noemie Merlant, PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE) who is excited (almost giddy) to be headed back to law school. It doesn’t take long for classmates to mistake her for a popular online sexy cam-girl named Amber Sweet. The mistaken identity and bullying cause Nora to drop out and return to her previous profession – real estate. It turns out the local office is being managed by Camile, who, disillusioned with teaching, is looking for a fresh start by helping out a friend. Nora sets the ground rules and the two maintain a professional relationship, right up to the point where they cross the line and become lovers.

Audiard shoots most of the film in black and white, which gives it the timeless feel of so many French romantic dramas over the years. The difference here stems from the sexual dynamics and interconnected stories and characters all within Paris’ 13th arrondissement. One of the terrific storylines has Nora cultivating a chat relationship with the same Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth of the English rock band Savages) she was mistaken for. Personal grief plays a role with two of the main characters, while a dark family secret burdens another. This emphasizes how we each carry the past and it sticks with us regardless of the path we choose. The film also reinforces how there are invariably contradictions in how we see ourselves and our actual behavior. These characters may engage in casual sex, though by the end, it’s clear each wants more than they are willing to admit. Things wrap up pretty neatly in the end, but the road travelled is a bit rocky.

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FATHER STU (2022)

April 12, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Well, if you are going to make a movie about redemption and bettering one’s self, who better to cast than Mark Wahlberg and Mel Gibson? Both men are stars who on multiple occasions have needed redeeming. Writer-director Rosalind Ross’ first feature film is based on the true story of Stuart Long, and Mr. Wahlberg was so committed to the project that he funded production when others chose not to.

OK, so maybe it’s a bit of a stretch having Mr. Wahlberg play the guy who becomes a priest, but that’s why they call it, “the magic of Hollywood.” Stuart Long was a real person and his story is compelling and worth sharing. Wahlberg so believed this that he self-funded the production, and clearly gave his all in the performance. My advice to anyone watching the movie is to stay seated. Things move extremely fast … and it’s that expeditious approach to storytelling that gives this a bit of a movie-of-the-week feel. Here’s what I mean by fast: We see Stu (Wahlberg) as a boxer. His parents are long-divorced, and after an injury, Stu decides to head to California to be an actor. He falls in love with a girl who convinces him to get baptized, and the experience inspires him to become a Catholic priest. Severe health issues ensue, yet he persists. That’s a whole lot to cover in two hours, and it explains why each piece skims only the surface and feels rushed … and this is only a partial list!

The pedigree here is beyond question. Wahlberg has twice been Oscar nominated. Two-time Oscar winner Mel Gibson plays his father, while 2-time Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver is Stu’s mother. Screen legend Malcolm McDowell plays the local monsignor who finds himself in a pickle, and the always-great Colleen Camp has a brief appearance as a seen-it-all motel clerk. Teresa Ruiz is terrific as Carmen, Stu’s reluctant love interest who first think she understands him, then learns she doesn’t, and then ultimately respects what he’s made of himself.

Catholicism plays a big role here, and there is plenty of guilt to go around. Wahlberg leans heavily into his charm to help us relate to Stu, but he and Gibson both have cringe-inducing moments for those familiar with some of their off-screen activities. Gibson’s ‘Hitler’ crack seems to walk an especially fine line. On the other hand, Gibson delivers a couple of memorable lines: one early on when he’s watching young Stu dance, and another later on when the two are re-connecting as grown men. Filmmaker Ross includes some actual Stuart Long audio recordings, photographs, and video over the closing credits.

Opens in theaters April 13, 2022

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ALL THE OLD KNIVES (2022)

April 8, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Thanks to James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Ethan Hunt, we’ve grown accustomed to globetrotting action-packed thrillers in the spy genre. But of course, there is the flip side: the quiet and unheralded work done by intelligence agents … those who typically use their brains more often than their fists or guns. Director Janus Metz (the underrated BORG VS MCENROE, 2017) has based his film on the 2015 book by Olen Steinhauer.

It’s 2012 and we are inside the Vienna station of the CIA as the agents meet to strategize their response to a terrorist act – the hijacking of Turkish Alliance Airline Flight 127. The team is unable to prevent tragedy, and it’s clear this is a case that will stick with them. Eight years later, the station chief (Laurence Fishburne) calls Henry Pelham (Chris Pine) back in to let him know that on orders from Langley the case has been re-opened. The terrorist behind that hijacking has been recently captured and disclosed that he had a CIA mole inside the Vienna station. Henry is to re-interview everyone involved to uncover the double-agent.

One of those interviewed is the former supervisor played by Jonathan Pryce. He’s now retired, and Henry forces him to go back through all details, some of which are uncomfortably personal. But that doesn’t compare to how personal the next interview hits. Celia (Thandiwe Newton) was not just Henry’s fellow agent, but also his lover. She has since left the agency and is living a pleasant family life in stunning Carmel-by-the-Sea, perhaps the most picturesque coastal area in the U.S. Chris Pine gets to look really cool driving a convertible over Bixby Bridge.

Director Metz works in numerous flashbacks to the relationship between Henry and Celia, and it’s through these that we come to understand their connection and the type of people they are. But ultimately, it’s their meeting at the fancy restaurant with the breathtaking view that serves as the key to the movie and the story. In fact, because their time sharing a table and wine is so substantial and critical, it could easily transition to a stage play. It’s a high-level game of cat-and-mouse between two beautiful and smart characters. You may know where it’s headed, but it’s unlikely you’ll know how it will get there.

It’s easy to see this being a popular streaming choice as the characters and setting are easy on the eyes. The deeper questions asked here are what to do when a loved one isn’t who you thought they were. Also, can you trust those trained to not trust others? As previously stated, it’s a bit of a different spin on the spy genre – less action/thriller and more character study.

Streaming on Prime Video beginning April 8, 2022

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MOTHERING SUNDAY (2022)

April 8, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Every writer has a story about what inspired them to put words on the page. What we have here is Eva Husson directing a script from Alice Birch (LADY MACBETH, 2016) who has adapted the 2016 novella from British author Graham Swift. We follow Jane Fairchild through three stages, as her work as a maidservant allows her to become “an occupational observer of life.”

It’s Mothers’ Day 1924 and Jane (Odessa Young, SHIRLEY, 2020) is anticipating her latest romantic tryst with Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor, EMMA., 2020). Both know this is their final time together, and they take full advantage. Jane’s employers, Godfrey and Clarrie Niven, are meeting Paul’s parents for a celebratory luncheon with Emma (Emma D’Arcy), the ‘proper’ woman Paul is to marry. Oscar winner Colin Firth (THE KING’S SPEECH, 2010) and Oscar winner Oliva Colman (THE FAVOURITE, 2018) play the Nivens, and deaths from WWI hang over all of these families like the darkest of clouds.

The story is told in non-linear fashion, with Jane and Paul’s final lovemaking session being that which all other events seem to revolve. We also spend some time with Jane in her 40’s as she is living with her philosopher husband Donald (Sope Dirisu), and then in her 80’s as she is celebrated as a renowned and prize-winning author. In this last stage, Jane is surprisingly played by the great Glenda Jackson, a two-time Oscar winner (A TOUCH OF CLASS, 1973, and WOMEN IN LOVE, 1969), who has only appeared in a handful of TV movies these past thirty years. Ms. Jackson turns 86 next month, and spent time as an elected member of Parliament. She’s always been an interesting person, and it’s terrific to see her back on the big screen – even if she only gets a couple of brief scenes followed by one substantial one near the end.

It’s a beautiful film and it’s sensuously photographed, though maybe a bit odd in that it focuses so diligently on the visuals (thanks to cinematographer Jamie D Ramsay), while actually following a woman’s journey into writing. Love (or lack of it) and grief and life’s transitions are all on display, as are the harsh realities of class differences. Ms. Young and Mr. O’Connor are both terrific, and though she has minimal screen time, we are stunned again at just how much emotion Ms. Colman can convey with her face.

Memories and recollections of “that day” play a crucial role as the mature Jane wrestles with writing her novel … one that her publisher expects to be a thriller. Of course, we watch as Jane’s story plays out, so we know where her writing is headed. The film has a vagueness to its storytelling that prevents us from ever fully engaging with Jane or any of the rich, sad people, yet it’s such a beautiful film to look at that we never seem to mind.

In theaters on April 8, 2022

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