SXSW 2021 Day 2

March 18, 2021

SXSW 2021 Day 2

 This year’s South By Southwest (SXSW) festival is being held completely online, and of course a virtual festival lacks the oh-so-enjoyable elements of long lines, rude people, bad weather, and rushed fast food. Sure the excitement and energy of an audience is missing, but at least there is no hotel expense!

Day 2 for me included two documentaries, two thrillers, and two dramas. Here’s a recap:

 

WeWORK: OR THE MAKING AND BREAKING OF A $47 MILLION UNICORN (documentary)

 It’s quite possible that many scams originally begin with someone’s good intentions. However it’s just as likely, and maybe even more so, that many scams begin with only the intention of raking in millions or billions for the founder. The dream of becoming the next Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, or Mark Zuckerberg is simply too enticing for some. Filmmaker Jed Rothstein profiles the rise and fall of WeWork, or more accurately, its charismatic commander, Adam Neumann.

Offering a nice overview for those unfamiliar, the film uses multiple clips of Neumann speaking so that we get a real feel for how so many fell under his spell. Neumann was an immigrant from Israel, and certainly bought into the ideal of living the American Dream. Labeled a visionary, and always full of ideas, Neumann co-founded WeWork with Miguel McKelvey. They were known affectionately as Mr. Outside and Mr. Inside, respectively, due to McKelvey’s focus on operations and infrastructure and Neumann’s ability as a salesman and the (and hair) of the company.

The idea of co-working space was not new, but it had never been pitched or marketed the way that Neumann did. He appealed to the rebellious nature of millennials, who couldn’t picture themselves in the traditional corporate office environment of the establishment. Neumann capitalized on their FOMO, and rammed home the message of “Do what you love.” He preached to the choir with his promise of the next revolution being the “We revolution.”

Journalists from Forbes, The Atlantic, and The Wall Street Journal are interviewed, as are former We staff members and clients. Mr. Rothstein does a nice job of tracking the progression of the company via graphics showing valuation each year beginning with a few million in 2012 through a peak of $47 billion in 2018. He also explores how, within a 6 week period, the company went from that peak to near bankrupt.

A business model based on “community” with the goal of changing the way people work and live, turns out to be smoke and mirrors if legitimate business practices aren’t followed. That’s not to say his communal approach doesn’t work, but as so often happens, greed and the lust for power, create the downfall. Rothstein points out that the company’s own S-1 filed prior to the planned IPO was the red flag that had previously gone undetected.

This is as much a psychological study of Neumann as it is a business case study. Every time Neumann bristled at being called a “real estate company”, we should have known. With his cash infusion from Japan’s SoftBank still not leading to traditional profitability, we should have known. When his bizarre actress wife, Rebekah, became more involved with decisions and publicity, we should have known. Hindsight is crystal clear, and by the end, we realize Neumann has more in common with the notorious Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos than with Steve Jobs. The Jesus Complex seems obvious, but as humans we want so much to believe the words of an idealist … especially a cool one. There is a lot to unpack in this documentary, and it’s worth it – even if it helps us learn our lesson yet again.

 

HERE BEFORE (drama/thriller)

 Grief can be the most powerful and dangerous emotion we experience as humans. Anger and joy come and go, but real grief seeps into our marrow and becomes part of our being. Writer-director Stacey Gregg wisely tackles the topic with the assistance of the always excellent Andrea Riseborough (a resume loaded with strong projects) as Laura, a mother who begins to believe that her deceased daughter Josie has been reincarnated as the new neighbors’ daughter, Megan (Niamh Dornan).

Ms. Gregg expertly builds tension and doubt through the film’s first half, and throws a terrific curve ball in the final act … one I kick myself and applaud the filmmaker for not seeing it coming. There is an awkwardness between the two families forced together by a shared dwelling wall. That awkwardness only builds as Laura continually oversteps boundaries when it comes to Megan, who seems to know entirely too many details when it comes to Josie’s death.

Megan’s parents, Marie (Eileen O’Higgins) and Chris (Martin McCann), are from a different socio-economic class than their neighbors, and the uncomfortable connection extends to Laura’s husband, Brendon (Jonjo O’Neill) and son, Tadhg (Lewis McAkie). Whether it’s in the front yard, at school, or the grocery story, each time these families cross paths leaves us with weird vibes and feeling more confused. Is something supernatural at play here?

The cinematography from Chloe Thomson is superb, and composer Adam Janota Bzowski is pitch perfect is giving us just enough at the right moments. Set in Belfast, this is a gripping thriller with terrific performances throughout. Stacey Gregg makes it look all too easy with her first feature film.

 

LANGUAGE LESSONS (drama)

 The use of video chats as a plot device might have been a bit more adventurous 18 months ago, but oddly, the pandemic and our familiarity with this type of communication (out of necessity) actually works to strengthen this interesting film. It’s the feature film directorial debut of Natalie Morales, who co-wrote the script with Mark Duplass, and the two co-star as the only characters we see on screen.

Ms. Morales plays Carino, a Costa Rica-based Spanish teacher hired by Adam’s (Duplass) husband Will (an unseen DeSean Terry). An awkward first lesson – Lesson #1 of 100 in the package – includes Adam’s morning routine of hot/cold dips in the pool and spa in the backyard of his luxurious home. Director Morales labels the lessons throughout, and no, we thankfully don’t see all 100. After a personal tragedy occurs, the teacher-student dynamic shifts and becomes more therapy before settling into a strange friendship.

Between lessons, Adam and Carino exchange many personal messages, many littered with entirely too many “I’m sorry” lines in an attempt to avoid overstepping boundaries. Adam is forthcoming with his personal feelings, while Carino bounces between trying to stay professional and wanting to bond. It’s clear she is hiding details of her personal life, while rarely discouraging Adam from over-sharing. The frequent personal messages reveal more about each character than the scheduled meetings, but combined they work very well.

The charisma of Duplass and especially Morales allow us to care very much about this relationship. They are both charming, and Morales has the most fun in the drunk birthday song scene. She is to be commended for taking such a simple structure and creating an interesting movie that proves people need connection – whether in person, through masks, or via Zoom.

 

THE FALLOUT (drama)

 Megan Park is an established actress with some memorable roles (WHAT IF, 2013), and although she has directed some short films, this is her first feature film as writer-director. Her subject matter revolves around a school shooting and how it impacts students in so many ways. Rather than creating a project focusing on gun control, Ms. Park instead takes on the various emotions that occur after such a horrific event.

Vada (Jenna Ortega, young Jane in “Jane the Virgin”) is a 16 year old high school student who is in the restroom when gunfire is heard. We don’t see the shooter, and instead director Park sticks with Vada and Mia Reed (Maddie Ziegler) as they hide in the stall, terrified of what’s happening. Mia is the school beauty, and one that Vada and her best friend Will (Nick Ropp) would typically make fun of behind her back. While in the stall, a bloody Quinton (Niles Fitch) joins them.

The three students form an unlikely bond after the shooting, as Will finds a new mission in life as an activist and spokesperson. Vada’s parents are played by a skittish Julie Bowen and the always dependable John Ortiz. Vada and Mia both struggle with their emotions, and start to depend on each other. Quinton has serious fallout to deal with, though he and Vada get closer as well. Though she is unable to talk to her parents or deal with her younger sister, Vada does see a therapist played by Shailene Woodley.

It’s painful to see anyone have to deal with such a horrific event, but it’s so much worse when it’s kids who simply aren’t mature enough or experienced enough to handle such a burden. Wine, sex, and pot all make up the attempts at self-healing by the students, and the film doesn’t shy away from the difficulties they face in returning to school – or returning to anything resembling normalcy after attending memorial services for numerous classmates. Filmmaker Park allows us to experience Vada’s slow recovery, and then throws in a gut-punch of an ending that is likely to stun many. A terrific performance from Ms. Ortega and strong filmmaking from Ms. Park makes this one stick with us.

 

TOM PETTY SOMEWHERE YOU FEEL FREE (documentary)

 Adria Petty, daughter of the late rock legend, Tom Petty, discovered a stash of 16mm film shot by photographer Martyn Akins between 1993 and 1995. The footage chronicles Petty’s recording of his 1994 triple platinum album, “Wildflowers” – the album he considered his best and most personal. The found footage, along with insight and perspective from many who were there, allows us to understand why he felt that way.

Mary Wharton directed multiple episodes of “VH1 Legends”, and her expertise with musicians elevates this to must-see for any Tom Petty fan … or even any songwriter who wants to witness the crafting of songs, and the crafting of a sound. See, this was Petty’s first time to work with famed rap producer and co-founder of Def Jam Recordings, Rick Rubin. Adria explains what was happening in her father’s personal life during this time, and how he wanted something new and different from his work with The Heartbreakers – although most of them worked on this album as well.

In addition to the 27 year old footage, Ms. Wharton includes current day interviews with Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, and producer Rubin. Campbell seems mostly bored with the interviews, but Tench spills all his memories. It’s really Rubin who brings the most insight and perspective to what Petty was trying to do. The changing of drummers from Stan Lynch to Steve Ferrone is discussed, and we hear Petty explain that he still wants to sing with bassist Howie Epstein. So the songs may sound different, and have special meaning to Petty, many of the musicians are those he was most familiar and comfortable with.

We see rehearsals, recordings, sound checks, and live performances. There are also rare clips of Petty at home. Ms. Wharton provides a unique opportunity to watch an artist at work and how the pieces are assembled to create a masterpiece album that is as strong today as it was on its first release. Tom Petty died in 2017, but lives on in his music, and now in the footage of his musical process.

 

OFFSEASON (horror)

 Horror director and writer Mickey Keating adds to his oeuvre with a creative twist on the genre that mixes zombies, the depths of hell, and a powerful monster. Using title cards to take us through six chapters and an Epilogue, Mr. Keating has us experience the events through the eyes of Marie Aldrich (played by Jocelin Donahue). However, it’s Marie’s mother Ava, played by the always interesting Melora Walters (whose career dates back to DEAD POETS SOCIETY, 1989), whom we see and hear from first. She appears near death as she explains that she’s accepted that there is no way to run away from nightmares … they always find you.

Marie receives a letter informing her that her mother’s grave has been desecrated and it’s an urgent matter that must be handled promptly and without fanfare (do people usually go to the press on such matters?). Marie and her boyfriend George (Joe Swanberg) head to the island where Mom is buried. It’s a creepy place that shuts down for the winter. Marie’s mother had told her stories of the island and “The Man from the Sea”, and how the island residents sold their soul to the sea monster in order to survive the harsh conditions. Reluctantly, the Bridge Man (Richard Brake) allows them to cross the bridge onto the island.

Things immediately seem weird and off-center. Marie finds her mother’s damaged grave, but the caretaker is nowhere to be found. Under a time crunch, Marie and George make some bad decisions … of course, it wouldn’t be a horror movie without bad decisions! Not to give away any of the fun, but suffice to say the island is cursed, just as Marie’s mom had warned.

Keating creates some nice visuals, and has terrific placement of The Vogues’ “Turn Around, Look at Me”. One thing that I couldn’t help but notice is that Marie runs and runs. She runs a lot. I’m hoping Ms. Donahue agreed to the extra miles before arriving on set. There are enough chills here to keep us engaged, and Keating deserves credit for an original story within a genre that frequently re-treads.


SXSW 2021 Day One

March 16, 2021

SXSW 2021 Day 1

This year’s South By Southwest (SXSW) festival is being held completely online, and of course a virtual festival lacks the oh-so-enjoyable elements of long lines, rude people, bad weather, and rushed fast food. Sure the excitement and energy of an audience is missing, but at least there is no hotel expense!

Day 1 for me included four documentaries and one narrative. Here’s a recap:

 

HYSTERICAL (documentary)

 Stand-up comedy is certainly one of the toughest ways to make a living in the entertainment world. As if making others laugh isn’t difficult enough, convincing someone to give you mic time on stage takes a minor miracle when first starting out. Documentarian Andrea Blaugrund Nevins goes one step further as she focuses on the trials and tribulations facing female stand-up comedians. And she does so in a way that allows us to feel the struggle.

No matter your age, if you are reading this, then there were successful and funny female comedians working when you were growing up. Ms. Nevins includes clips of Moms Mabley from 1948, as well as Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, and other legends. But this documentary is about so much more than great jokes. We are privy to the personal stories behind the stage acts of many of the women working stand-up today. These women are honest and raw in recounting their journeys, and they are fascinating and informative.

Souls are bared, and no topic is off limits. Confidence, anger, self-doubt, childhood issues, and the desire for attention and acknowledgment are discussed. In what has traditionally been “a man’s world”, we are told that once onstage, “There is no one telling us what to do.” The dark side is also present. Pay discrepancies between the genders is well documented. We hear multiple stories of being subjected to inappropriate behavior, groping, and even assault. Included is the 2019 clip of Kelly Bachman rocking the room while Harvey Weinstein was present. On top of that, there is competition amongst the women due to the belief that there is only room for so many. Yet, despite this, a camaraderie exists among these brave women to prove the power of laughter. Terrific work from Ms. Nevins.

 

DEAR MR. BRODY (documentary)

 Filmmaker Keith Maitland is responsible for one of the best made and most interesting documentaries of all-time. His TOWER (2016) was a favorite on the festival run, as well as its numerous TV showings. The body count on his latest is reduced, and it plays like psychoanalysis of a young man who captured the nation’s attention for one brief moment in time.

If the title doesn’t ring a bell, you likely were either too young or not born when, in 1970, the heir to an Oleo Margarine fortune made headlines everywhere. Michael James Brody, Jr announced that he was going to give away his millions to anyone who asked. He even gave out his home address and phone number in Scarsdale, New York. The announcement even got him a spot on “The Ed Sullivan Show” to sing a song … which led to a recording contract.

At the time, Brody was 21 years old and married to Renee, who was kind enough to sit for interviews with Mr. Maitland for the film. Her (reluctant) insight paints a picture of a man who believed in “Peace” over “Money”, and started with the best intentions of helping people. Sadly, but not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for the cracks to show in Brody’s mission. His pronouncements of gift-giving had his wealth fluctuating from $25 million to $50 million, and even into the billions at times. His demeanor shifted drastically, sometimes within the same day.

The letters flowed in. And kept coming. We hear from authors, friends of Brody, and researchers. Producer Melissa Robyn Glassman located 12 boxes of unopened letters that movie Producer Edward Pressman had in storage from a movie project that never materialized. We also hear from Brody’s and Renee’s son Jamey, who not only collects items from the family “Good Luck” Margarine brand, but also has 40-50 boxes of unopened letters addressed to his dad … Dear Mr. Brody.

It’s those letters that provide the heart and soul of the story, the movie, and this moment in history. Maitland and Melissa track down some of the original letter writers, as well as some of the surviving family members. As they read the words from decades ago, emotions take over and instantly, we are observing an intimate memory. We may be intruding, but these are raw human emotions on display.

Brody’s mental state at the time is also discussed. Drugs clearly played a part in his behavior – specifically PCP, and this led to interest from the editor of “High Times” magazine. It also led to Brody being hospitalized for a time, and ultimately to tragedy. History is filled with odd characters, and Michael James Brody, Jr certainly had his Andy Warhol ’15 minutes of Fame’, but the real story here is that of those who wrote the letters of need/want more than 50 years ago.

**NOTE: it’s not surprising that Brody’s house at 31 Paddington Road in Scarsdale was long ago razed and replaced with a mansion more suitable to the area.

 

INTRODUCING, SELMA BLAIR (documentary)

 Whether it’s navigating the stairs on all fours, getting a boost up to the saddle of her beloved horse, or showing off her glittery turbans and walking canes, the showmanship of actress Selma Blair seems ever-present despite the severe effects of her Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Documentarian Rachel Fleit films the daily challenges faced by Ms. Blair as she comes to grips with the disease and its impact on her career, her life, and her ability to raise her son.

You likely recognize Selma Blair from her most popular movies, CRUEL INTENTIONS (1999) and LEGALLY BLONDE (2001). She admits to viewing herself as a supporting actor, rather than a star, but with 80 screen credits over 25 years, she’s certainly worked consistently. But here we see her daily physical and emotional struggles, though her sense of humor is present except for the darkest moments. Cracking wise about Kim Kardashian or Norma Desmond (SUNSET BLVD), and never hesitating to ensure her cane serves the dual purpose of fashion accessory, Ms. Blair keeps us constantly guessing as to whether she is serving up raw emotions or her best performance in the moment.

We can easily forgive her if a bit of her good humor is an act. It seems clear the film is designed to be a “gift” to her young son Arthur, should her life be cut short. Early on, we witness an MS episode when the stimulus gets to be too much. Her physical contortions and impaired speech are difficult to watch, but necessary for us to fully understand the brutality of the disease.

Half of the film is dedicated to her decision to seek stem cell treatment. The process is long and arduous, and we are spared much of the worst that she experiences. Still, it’s a weeks-long cycle followed by a two year recovery, with no guarantee of improvement. In fact, no miracle cure or recovery occurs, and Ms. Blair initially seems shocked that she has two years of recovery ahead. It’s difficult to believe she had not previously been informed.

Selma Blair’s slogan, “We have so much time to be dead”, is a terrific message and she’s to be commended and respected for opening up her challenges to the camera. It’s hopeful that her willingness to do so will help others, while also educating those unfamiliar with this disease. Mommy issues and extra drama aside, this film is quite something to experience.

 

THE END OF US (drama)

 Co-writers and co-directors Steven Kanter and Henry Loevner serve up one of the first COVID-19 relationship movies. It’s the kind of indie movie that plays well at festivals, but also one that nails what so many have experienced over the past year … well hopefully sans the break-up.

Ali Vingiano is Leah and Ben Coleman is Nick. They have been in a four year relationship that ends abruptly when Leah gets fed up with carrying an unbalanced load in regards to grown-up things like rent, food, and insurance. See, while Nick dreams of writing a screenplay and getting acting jobs (while taking few auditions), Leah is the grounded one who holds a real paying job. It’s easy for us to understand when Leah says ‘enough’.

The wrinkle here is that the break-up occurs in the early days of the pandemic. Knowledge is scarce and deaths are mounting. Businesses are closing and a stay-at-home order is issued in California, forcing this newly separated couple to … well … not be separated. Nick sleeps on the couch, but the two are together more now than … well … when they were together. Tension and stress is as prevalent as Zoom meetings.

It’s an unusual situation, and both Leah and Nick have friends they confide in, but moving on is pretty difficult when the proximity is closer than ever before. Petty emotions come into play, as do real ones. Apologies and quasi-apologies are rampant, but we see both change and grow despite the challenges. The lead actors are solid and the script is fresh and spot on. There are some uncomfortable moments, but relatability is the key here. Nice work from those involved.

 

DEMI LOVATO: DANCING WITH THE DEVIL (documentary)

 Opening Night Headliner at SXSW is a place of honor, and this year’s selection was the docuseries from Michael D Ratner (TV docuseries “Justin Bieber: Seasons”) highlighting Demi Lovato’s personal challenges, of which there are many. The 4-part series was shown straight-through with only chapter slides showing where each new episode begins. Initial scenes show Lovato during her 2018 tour, which was originally the purpose of a documentary. Filming ended abruptly when she overdosed on drugs and nearly died.

In 2020, Ms. Lovato had a new story to tell, and her personal struggles became the focus of the documentary. She promised transparency and honesty, and by all indications, she delivered. Very few celebrities have ever revealed so many personal challenges. By the end of the finale, we’ve heard about her addictions, the physical-emotional-sexual abuse she’s endured, her eating disorder, bi-polar diagnosis, depression, self-harm, and body issues. We also learn of her frequent lies to friends, family, and associates.

Not only does Lovato sit for many interviews, we also hear from her mother, sisters, friends, choreographer, Security Director, Business Manager, and former personal assistant. That’s right. One of the things that stands out most here is privilege. The former Disney child star and now global pop star has a support team and resources that most can only dream of. She went to rehab at one of the most exclusive facilities in the world, and after a near-death drug overdose, her famous new manager agrees to sign her, even after a relapse shortly after her rehab stint. Obviously addiction is something many struggle with, but it’s quite eye-opening to see the care wealth can attain.

One of the most interesting things to come from this is in the final episode where Lovato admits that “moderation” is her personal approach to dealing with addiction. Despite input from Elton John, Christina Aguilera, and Will Ferrell, Lovato believes she is better off with moderate alcohol consumption and pot smoking than stone cold sobriety. Only time will tell. One thing is for sure … her voice remains a true gift. Her “comeback” performance at the 2020 Grammy Awards and her singing of the National Anthem at the 2020 Super Bowl are unmistakable in proof of talent. However, we can’t help but wonder how the personal admissions will be received by the youngsters who look up to Demi Lovato.

 


THE FATHER (2021)

March 11, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are frequent topics in movies these days for the simple reason that so many are impacted either directly or through a friend or family member. The importance of memory to our core being cannot be over-stated. It’s crucial to who we are and what we feel. The first feature film from French director Florian Zeller is an excellent and poignant tale, all too real for those who have experienced this with a loved one. Zeller adapted his own play (winning a Tony Award for Frank Langella) with his co-writer, Oscar winner Christopher Hampton (DANGEROUS LIASONS, 1988). It’s also one of the few films where Set Design is so crucial that it basically serves as a main character.

Whereas most of these movies provide the perspective of the caregiver or family members, this one is extraordinary in also giving us the point-of-view of the one suffering. Sir Anthony Hopkins (Oscar winner, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, 1991) plays Anthony, an 80 year old Londoner who gets hurt, defensive and a bit churlish when his daughter Anne (Oscar winner Olivia Colman, THE FAVOURITE, 2018) informs him that she’s met a man and is moving to Paris. Anne is working to find an acceptable caregiver for her father … one that he doesn’t run off in a matter of hours. Though Anne maintains a spirited front, it’s clear the responsibility is exhausting and draining – feelings of which any caregiver can surely relate.

Just about the time we get a feel for the flow and settle in for a family drama, filmmaker Zeller spins things topsy-turvy. We suddenly aren’t sure ‘what is what’ or ‘who is who’. Olivia Williams (THE SIXTH SENSE, 1999) is now Anne. She now has a husband, Paul – maybe Mark Gatiss or Rufus Sewell. The details of the apartment are slightly different, and instead of being Anthony’s place, it’s actually Anne’s. Or is it? Anthony tries to process these differences, just as we do. The interview with an in-home caregiver played by Imogen Poots brings out the joy and liveliness of Anthony, but a painting raises questions … as does the ongoing saga with Anthony’s favorite wristwatch. As viewers, we are baffled and disoriented; however, unlike Anthony, we are slowly able to process the flashes of data and slowly put the pieces together.

Anthony Hopkins delivers his best and most emotional work in years, while Olivia Colman continues her impressive run. In fact, the entire cast his spot on. Complementing the performances is Peter Francis’ previously mentioned Set Design, which adds to both the confusion and the explanation. Also elevating the film is the work of Film Editor Yorgos Lamprinos and the score from Ludovico Einaudi.  Hopkins’ character asks, “Who exactly am I?” and we feel the excruciating pain of realizing one’s persona is slipping away. This will be a challenging film to watch for anyone who has experienced this type of agonizing loss in their life, and Zeller’s film also serves as a warning to everyone else.

Opening theatrically nationwide March 12th and available for Premium VOD on March 26th

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MY SALINGER YEAR (2021)

March 4, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. There is no shortage of famous reclusive writers. Harper Lee, Thomas Pynchon, and even Edgar Allan Poe surely earned the label. Yet, thanks to his book “The Catcher in the Rye”, J.D. Salinger remains the most mysterious of them all. First published in 1951, ‘Catcher’ has long appealed to angsty teenagers caught up in the excitement of relating to Holden Caulfield’s rebellion, and construed from this is that author Salinger must be the only one who understands them.

Filmmaker Phillippe Falardeau (THE GOOD LIE, 2014) has adapted the 2014 memoir of Joanna Smith Rakoff, who recounted her time working for the New York literary agency that represented Salinger. Set in the mid-90s, the film centers on Joanna (played by Margaret Qualley, ONCE UPON A TIME … IN HOLLYWOOD, 2019), as she leaves school and a boyfriend behind in California to pursue writing in the Big Apple, because, as she states in her opening monologue, “It’s what I want.

The dream of writing and the reality of earning a living come crashing down on Joanna as she secures a job as a secretary under Margaret (3 time Oscar nominee Sigourney Weaver), who is protective of her most secretive client, J.D. Salinger, whom she refers to as “Jerry”. Margaret and the agency are “old school” and use only typewriters since she believes computers only create more work. Joanna’s job description is this: read the piles of Salinger fan letters that arrive, ensure there is no threat of violence, categorize said letter, send the appropriate form letter response, and shred the original. Rinse and repeat hundreds of times.

Though she has little time to write, Joanna finds a boyfriend in Don (Douglas Booth, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES, 2016), a selfish guy working on his own novel. We see Joanna at home with Don and at work with Margaret, Jerry’s fan mail, and co-workers Hugh and Daniel, played by veteran character actors Bryan F O’Byrne and Colm Feore, respectively. The obsessive fan letters start to get to Joanna, and she breaks protocol by sending a personal reply to one. One writer in particular, played by Theodore Pellerin (“On Becoming a God in Central Florida”) becomes an illusion that Joanna’s mind brings into real moments of her life. This happens between her phone conversations with Salinger (played with effective elusiveness by Tim Post).

Similarities to THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA creep in occasionally, but it’s how likable Margaret Qualley is that keeps us interested, despite us knowing almost nothing about her writing abilities. We only know she’s written a couple of poems and red-lined Don’s first novel. She proclaims she wants to be “extraordinary”, but after seeing the effects of success on Salinger, we can’t help but wonder why she hasn’t adjusted that goal a bit. The iconic photograph of J.D. Salinger hangs on the wall by Joanna’s desk, and though he died in 2010, his work still impacts readers some 70 years after being published. This film isn’t quite so memorable, but it’s easy enough to watch.

In theatres beginning March 5, 2021

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THE AFFAIR (2021)

March 3, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. The world famous Villa Tugendhat is a physical, emotional, and visual metaphor for the collapse of the Czech Republic in this film from director Julius Sevcik (LOST GIRLS AND LOVE HOTELS, 2020). Writer Andrew Shaw (VOICE FROM THE STONE, 2017) adapted the script from Simon Mawer’s 2009 best-selling book, “The Glass Room”. The family melodrama is fictionalized, but the house itself is the character around which everything else revolves. And what a house it is.

Viktor (Claes Bang, TV mini-series “Dracula”, and THE LAST VERMEER, 2020) commissions noted architect Von Abt (Karel Roden) to build a home for Viktor’s new bride, Liesel (Hanna Alstrom, the KINGSMAN movies). Liesel works closely with the architect to create a modern masterpiece that is the envy of their Czechia town of Brno. The heart of the stunning structure is a glass room, causing Abt to ask Liesel, “Are you ready to live in the light?” Liesel’s close friend Hana (Carice Van Houten, LOST GIRLS AND LOVE HOTELS, 2020), who wishes they were even closer, spends a great deal of time visiting at the home. Liesel’s bliss is shaken when she discovers Viktor is having an affair with their nanny, Kata (Alexandra Borbely, ON BODY AND SOUL, 2017).

If she thought that was the worst thing that could happen, Liesel soon finds things much worse. She and her Jewish husband escape to Zurich just as the Nazi occupation occurs. Hana and her Jewish husband are not so fortunate, and not only is she separated from her lifelong friend, she is forced to do what she must to protect her husband, and that includes an affair with a German contractor named Stahl (Roland Moller, THE LAST VERMEER, 2020). It seems all of our characters are doing what they must, and they all seem to be thinking of someone other than the one they are with.

The second half of the film is much stronger than the first, as real tension exits. Ms. Van Houten is superb in her performance as Hana, and she carries this part of the story. It’s through her eyes that we see the transformations of Liesel’s beautiful home. The symmetry with what’s happening in the country is unmistakable, and Hana is at the heart of the film’s message … love endures and overcomes. The issue with the film is that we never really connect with any character but Hana. Viktor and Liesel are out of sight for an extended period of time, leaving us with what is a great idea for a film – but one that lacks the necessary depth.

Regardless of that, it’s a gorgeous film to watch … thanks in no small part to the work of cinematographer Martin Strba. The film stretches from the early 1930’s to the late 1960’s and the production design is spot on. Some interesting notes include Villa Tugendhat was actually designed by German architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich, and the Tugendhat family did actually flee the home. German plane designer Willy Messerschmitt actually lived in the house while it was being used as a design studio, much like the character Stahl in the film. It’s a shame the script doesn’t do justice to the cast and the home, but this one falls short of being a must see.

Available VOD on March 5, 2021

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NIGHT OF THE KINGS (2021, Ivory Coast)

February 27, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Could you tell a story that lasts all night? What if you were standing on a box in front of a few hundred rowdy inmates? What if your life depended on it? Writer-director Phillippe Lacote (RUN, 2015) opens the film with an aerial shot over the jungles of the Ivory Coast and slowly makes way to the isolated prison known as La MACA.

The camera takes us to the bed of a police pickup truck where a handcuffed young man is being escorted by an armed guard. It’s the first day of his prison sentence. La MACA has a warden and prison guards, but even they admit the place is mostly run by the inmates. The warden (Issaka Sawadogo) meets with the new prisoner (newcomer Bakary Kone), but it’s Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu) who summons the newbie to his cell. Blackbird has been the Dangaro, Chief of Prisoners, for years, and only recently has his hulking presence led to chatter of diminishing losing power. With his fatigue requiring regular intake from oxygen tanks, Blackbird realizes his reign is near … and tradition requires that, once too weak to lead, he take his own life.

Blackbird names the wide-eyed new prisoner Roman, meaning he will be the storyteller at that evening’s Red Moon. Blackbeard has this planned as his final hurrah as leader. Two prisoners are vying to become the new Dangaro: Blackbeard’s loyal assistant Half-Mad (Jean Cyrille Digbeau) and rival faction leader Lass (Abdoul Karim Konate). They each have their eye on wearing the “crown”.

If all this sounds a bit convoluted, you should know it’s fascinating to watch unfold on the screen. The rules and rituals are followed vigorously, and just like in any political situation, behind-the-scenes maneuverings are ongoing. We never lose sight of the fact that there are hundreds of criminals gathered in a confined area, yet the structure of their organization lends itself to Roman’s storytelling.

As a member of the Microbes gang in the Lawless Quarter of Abidjan, Roman doesn’t consider himself a storyteller, and is reluctant to begin. Urged on by the aggressive reactions of his audience, he’s soon weaving tales blending his childhood, the recent arrest of local legend Zama King, and the mythology and history of the Ivory Coast. Stunning flashbacks and visuals are utilized in just the right dosage to help us understand the stories without losing the danger Roman faces. What danger, you ask? Well a fellow prisoner named Silence (played by Denis Lavant, from 2012 cult favorite HOLY MOTORS), who keeps a chicken perched on his shoulder, warns Roman that his story must last through the night until the Red Moon sets on the horizon … or the ritual demands he be killed. Talk about motivation – as if the metal hook in the stairwell wasn’t enough!

Filmmaker Lacote excels with his ‘story within a story’ and the blending of truth and fiction. The fed-up guards watching through the small window in their protected office says more than words could. And cinematographer Tobie Marier Robitaille works wonders within the claustrophobic confines of the prison, and by capturing the emotions of the participants. This is an original film that could be equally effective as a stage production, as both vehicles can convey the glory of the moment morning breaks. Let’s hope this isn’t “once upon a time” for Lacote, and that he has more to offer at this level.

Available February 26, 2021 in select theatres and Virtual Cinemas

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CRISIS (2021)

February 25, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. The best thrillers often interweave multiple story lines to create a complex web of detail for viewers to unwind. Writer-director Nicholas Jarecki (ARBITRAGE, 2012) serves up three story lines, all related to the current Opioid crisis. Although the film looks great and has a deep cast, we’ve seen most of this before and no new insight is provided in regards to the struggle. Instead, it’s really standard thriller fare that never goes deep enough into any of the characters to make us care.

Armie Hammer (along with the recent personal baggage attached to him) stars as Jake Kelly, a DEA Agent who has worked undercover in hopes of exposing the Armenian-Canadian-American drug traffickers responsible for a significant portion of opioids crossing the border. Hammer spends the entire movie with an intensely furrowed brow that would likely inspire distrust amongst any potential drug syndicates.

In storyline number 2, Evangeline Lilly (Wasp in the ANT-MAN movies) is Claire Reimann, an architect and recovering drug addict, who is out for vengeance when her beloved high school athlete son is found dead with drugs in his system. The third segment features Oscar winner Gary Oldman (DARKEST HOUR, 2017) as Dr. Tyrone Brower, a science professor at a private Detroit university. He runs a drug-testing lab and faces a moral dilemma when questionable lab results for “the first non-addictive painkiller” puts people at risk, not to mention funding for his work.

Any one of these actors or stories could carry the weight of a movie, but when combined, they succeed only in crushing the entertainment value and tension level. Oldman’s story is easily the most interesting. It addresses how Big Pharma gets new drugs rubber-stamped by funding otherwise cash-strapped labs and schools. There is also the skepticism involved with the drug-producer’s influence over the supposedly independent FDA, and on top of all that, there is the ethical concerns of everyone putting the almighty dollar ahead of safety.

Director Jarecki (the brother of Andrew Jarecki who directed the superb 2003 documentary CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS) kicks off the movie with a beautifully filmed, albeit brief, chase scene through the snowy Canadian forest. In fact, the camera work throughout is fine. It’s really the overloaded script that prevents any of the stories or characters from clicking. Mr. Oldman seems to sense that he needs to overcome the lack of complexity in his story, and because of the effort, loses his usual reserved cerebral approach for which he’s known.

Supporting work is provided by Greg Kinnear as the Dean willing to sacrifice ethics and friendship for money, Michelle Rodriguez as the DEA supervisor in a budget crunch, and Lily-Rose Depp as Jake’s strung out sister. Also contributing are Indira Varma, John Ralston, Martin Donovan, Mia Kirshner, Kid Cudi, Michael Aronov, Luke Evans, and Veronica Ferres. The weakest link here is director Jarecki himself, who for some reason, thought he could play Jake’s partner … a role that would have benefited from a more refined actor.

The horrific effects of the Opioid crisis are known to most, and the film plays like a Wikipedia explanation for anyone who doesn’t read or watch the news. Certainly not helping is the “Miami Vice” type score that accompanies many scenes, and the choppy editing that causes many scenes to fail. Better movies in this genre would include THE INSIDER (1999, ironically directed by “Miami Vice” creator Michael Mann) and Soderbergh’s TRAFFIC (2000). The obstacles faced by whistleblowers, the importance of funding to academia, budgetary concerns for law enforcement, the tragic impact of drugs on families, and the systemic corruption that has fueled the epidemic … all of these are touched on. It’s just that it all seems too obvious. If somehow you didn’t already know, the money-hungry don’t play fair – whether they be drug dealers or drug companies.

The film will hit theaters on February 26, 2021 and Digital and On Demand March 5, 2021

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CHERRY (2021)

February 25, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Brothers Anthony Russo and Joe Russo are known for their work with Marvel, including, AVENGERS: ENDGAME, and AVENGERS: INFIINITY WAR. This time they tackle a stylish crime-thriller based on the Nico Walker novel, and adapted for the screen by co-writers Angela Russo-Otsot (sister of the directors) and Jessica Goldberg. The Russos reunite with Tom Holland (Spider-Man in the Marvel universe), and he proves quite capable of carrying the heavy load in a bleak and somber drama.

Opening a film with a Van Morrison song is always a welcome move, and then it cuts right to Holland as our lead character narrating as he executes armed robbery at a local Cleveland bank. He admits it’s not his first and that his face has been caught on camera a few times. Oh, and he discloses to us that he likes trees. It’s not the last time we ask, “Why?”

The directors break the film into segments, beginning with Part 1: 2002, “When life was beginning, I saw you.” In English class, he spots Emily (Ciara Bravo) and soon the romance is in full bloom. A too-quick decision has him joining the Army, and the two lovebirds tie the knot before he heads out. In this segment, we learn that he takes Xanax for panic attacks, and his best friend is James (Forrest Goodluck).

Part 2 takes us through Basic Training, where Holland’s character pushes through the brutal Drill Instructors to become a medic, which transitions into Part 3 known as Cherry (the name given to Holland’s character after his first battlefield action. His time in Iraq finds him watching as his Army pal Jimenez (Jeff Wahlberg, Mark’s nephew) dies from wounds.

Part 4 “Home”, shifts the film from a character study to a case study on the extremes of PTSD. Even though he is back with Emily, the love of his life, Cherry simply can’t function as a normal person. The medal for his heroic war efforts means nothing to a man who can’t sleep or find peace. His self-destructive actions include drinking, drug addiction, and a series of bad decisions … all dragging his lovely Emily right down with him. This leads to Part 5 “Dope Life”, which is without question, one of the most depressing and difficult to watch segments of any movie I can recall. It’s every bit as much of a downer as THE BOOST (1988), LEAVING LAS VEGAS (1995), or  REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000). The film becomes a sea of drugs, bank robberies, and needles in arms.

Long time cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (DRIVE, 2011; THE USUAL SUSPECTS, 1999) assists with the horrific sensation that these situations evoke by capturing the desperation of the characters and squalor of their environment. The Epilogue covers an extended period time through present day, and though the ending is not really a surprise, we do wish a bit more context had been provided. The initial bank robbery we see basically bookends the film leaving us trying to recover from this Romance-War-Mental Health-Drug Addiction-Crime thriller that saps our energy. This is not one for those who prefer light-hearted cinema or get annoyed by cheap filmmaker tricks.

Available in theatres February 26, 2021 and on AppleTV on March 12, 2021

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PINOCCHIO (2021)

February 23, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Part ‘Frankenstein’ and part parable for parenting is how I’ve always thought of the story of Pinocchio. In this latest version, director and co-writer (with Massimo Ceccherini) Matteo Garrone adds a splash “Alice in Wonderland” to Carlo Callodi’s 1883 novel, “The Adventures of Pinocchio”. The result is a grim, not-kid-friendly live-action presentation that’s a bit uneven, yet still engaging.

Oscar winner Roberto Benigni (LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, 1997) is wood-carver Geppetto, a poverty-stricken man who works magic with a chisel, but is never quite sure where his next meal will come from. When the traveling Grand Puppet Theater hits town, Geppetto dreams of creating a beautiful puppet and traversing the globe to show it off. A fellow wood worker gifts him with the enchanted piece of wood from which Pinocchio is born. When he discovers the puppet can talk, Geppetto is so proud of his new son that he shows him off around town and walks him to his first day of school.

Of course we know that Pinocchio is a curious boy, and he immediately sneaks off to watch the puppet show. This sets off his many adventures, while simultaneously making Geppetto quite sad as he undertakes a search and rescue mission. Pinocchio crosses paths with the kinda creepy Talking Cricket (Davide Marotta), the fire-eating Mangiafuoco (Gigi Proeitti), a couple of tricksters in Cat (Rocco Papaleo) and Fox (co-writer Ceccherini), a confused gorilla judge (Teco Celio), and a friendly, but slimy snail (Maria Pia Timo) who lives with the Fata Turchina/Blue Fairy (played young by Alida Baldari Calabria, and older by well-known French actress Marine Vacth).

The enticement of playing all day and having no responsibilities leads Pinocchio to accept an invitation to Toyland, although the train of donkeys pulling the wagon load of kids is our tipoff to what’s about to go down. Pinocchio’s subsequent swim in the ocean and encounter with the sea monster are handled well visually, and the reunion with Geppetto is quite pleasant. You should know that the iconic Pinocchio nose that grows upon telling lies is limited to a single scene, albeit a memorable one.

Benigni was the writer-director-star of the critically-panned 2002 PINOCCHIO, which also failed at the box office. He’s much better suited to the role of Geppetto and does a nice job of capturing the essence of the character. Federico Ielapi handles the role of Pinocchio quite well, and the “wooden” effects of his face are quite impressive. The story is a metaphor for the struggles and challenges of life, and the life lessons are easy to discern … for instance, there is no ‘field of miracles’, regardless of what Cat and Fox promise. Nicolai Bruel’s cinematography is at times visually stunning as we make our way through the countryside of Italy. It’s just that director Garrone (two excellent films: TALE OF TALES 2015, and GOMORRAH 2008) chooses to emphasize the bleakness, and it’s important to note that this is far-removed from the 1940 Disney animated classic. Most will struggle to find an emotional connection, though the look of the film and life lessons are top notch. Guillermo del Toro has a stop-action animation version currently in production and it’s not surprisingly rumored to be even darker than this one.

After a long delay, the film gets a digital release on February 23, 2021

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NOMADLAND (2021)

February 20, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Traditional beauty is nowhere to be found in filmmaker Chloe Zhao’s extraordinary film adapted (by Ms. Zhao) from Jessica Bruder’s 2017 award-winning book, “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century”. There are no breathtaking shots of majestic sites like the Grand Canyon, and the people we meet rarely bathe, and are not concerned with fashion. Despite this, the film can best be described as one of the most beautiful and most unique cinema experiences in years. Ms. Zhao provides a look at America’s roads and landscape through the eyes of folks that society tends to overlook.

A significant reason this film works is the incredible performance by two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand (FARGO, 1996, and THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, 2017). She plays Fern, a strong woman who refuses to let grief suffocate her. Her hometown of Empire, Nevada was erased from existence in 2011 when US Gypsum shut down the local plant, resulting in the town’s zip code being discontinued a few months later. As if her town disappearing wasn’t enough, Fern’s husband passed away, leaving her with little evidence of a life to which she had grown accustomed. We watch as Fern packs up her van and hits the road.

Her first stop is working at an Amazon distribution center during the holiday rush season. She lives out of her van as part of the company-sponsored CamperForce program. When the season is over, Fern hits the road again. We slowly get a feel for this subculture of van-dwelling nomads, young and old, who travel the country’s backroads and keep to themselves, except when they gather to form a temporary community of similar-minded individuals. Fern makes it clear she is “house-less”, not “homeless”, and has nicknamed her customized vehicle, ‘Vanguard’.

Fern thrives on her solitude, but is also friendly enough to connect with others wherever she stops driving or works. She joins the annual gathering of Bob Wells’ community/tribe, and her other odd jobs include acting as a “host” at one of the stops, shoveling sugar beets at a farm, and cooking/cleaning/serving at the famous Wall Drug Store in South Dakota. Along the way she befriends Dave (David Strathairn), a fellow nomad whose dreams don’t necessarily coincide with Ferns. Respected actor Strathairn is the only other familiar face in the film, other than McDormand. Non-professional actors fill the scenes, most of whom are real life nomads kind enough to share their ways in front of a camera.

Director Zhao has reunited with Joshua James Richards, her cinematographer on the excellent 2017 film, THE RIDER. Their work here is a masterclass in taking us into a world most of us know little about, and doing so in a way that combines both the intimacy of people with the scale of nature. Even the sequence where Fern revisits her past life is quietly emotional and done with grace, while also packing a punch. The music from Ludovico Einaudi is exceptional in its complementary nature and ability to leave the quiet moments unspoiled, while also driving our empathy and emotions. This is an extraordinary film with a superb performance, and one that is entertaining, while also proving thought-provoking at a time when so many of us are questioning the sustainability of our current societal structure, and wondering just who will toss a rock on the fire in remembrance.

In theatres and PVOD on Hulu beginning February 19, 2020

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