MISSION OF HONOR (2019)

March 14, 2019

aka HURRICANE

 Greetings again from the darkness. The true story of the Polish fighter pilots who helped the Royal Air Force (RAF) win the Battle of Britain in WWII is certainly fascinating and deserves telling. However, the budget constraints are a hindrance to this production, and though the story gets told, it’s missing the visual flair we’ve come to expect. It’s the first screenplay from co-writers Robert Ryan and Alastair Galbraith, and together with director David Blair, they all seem to understand the historical importance of the story and those involved.

The film begins in 1940 German occupied France, and this is where we first see Zumbach (played by Iwan Rheon), on his way to meet up with his fellow Polish pilots in England. Poland had only been a free standing country for about 20 years at this time, and these men were committed to salvaging their country … even if this meant fighting with the RAF against Germany. Initially the arrogance of British commanders borders on racism, as it’s assumed the Polish fighters don’t compare to the elite Royal Air Force pilots. Once stationed in Northolt under Kentowski (Milo Gibson, Mel’s son), Squadron 303 begins to take shape flying Hurricanes, disproving most of the preconceptions of British brass and pilots; although their success does cause some jealousy in the ranks over the prowess of the Polish pilots.

The less than stellar CGI used for the dogfights is a bit distracting, especially since there is only minimal character development. Polish fighter ace Witold Urbanowicz (played by Dorcin Morocinski) is idolized, but we learn very little about the man outside of flashbacks of his family in war torn Poland. There is a budding romance with Zumbach and Phyllis Lambert (Stephanie Martini), but quite a few assumptions must be made to take us to their final sequence. The character of Ms. Lambert is the standout female role here, and though she’s given a few quality scenes, it’s her shock of blonde hair that seems to stand out most.

The film concludes in 1946 London with the victory parade for King George VI. Despite Polish pilots helping immensely in the RAF victory in the Battle of Britain, no Polish pilots marched with the Allied forces. As a bitter Zumbach states, “we wouldn’t want to offend %&*$ing Stalin.” Squadron 303 was the highest scoring squadron of RAF during the war, and it’s unforgivable how the British viewed Polish casualties as mere numbers, despite the dead being friends and countrymen to the Polish pilots. This is overall a respectful approach to a key historical story, and one in which all Polish people should take pride.

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ALICE (2019)

March 13, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. So much trust goes into a marriage. We try to choose someone we can imagine growing old with, and also whose morals are in line with our own … especially if raising kids is part of the plan. Of course sometimes things don’t work out as hoped, and writer-director Josephine Mackerras shows us what happens when things go horribly wrong – when the person we have trusted is so drastically different than the person we believed them to be.

Alice (Emilie Piponnier) and Francois (Martin Swabey) appear to be a normal wife and husband raising a cute little boy named Jules. Alice is a beautiful and caring person, whose goodness shines through in her smile. Francois is the charming type who recites literary passages at dinner parties before planting a passionate kiss on his wife in front of everyone at the table. One day, Alice’s credit card is declined which leads her down the dark trail no one hopes to travel. Francois has maxed out the cards and emptied the bank account. Worse yet, their apartment is nearing foreclosure from lack of payments.

Further research leads Alice to Elegant Escorts and the realization that her beloved husband has been leading a secret double life – one that has left her penniless with a young child. What happens next is quite surprising. Sweet Alice proves to be much tougher than she appears. After some terrible guidance from her mother, Alice takes control of the situation in order to save her home and provide for her son. Her friend and mentor in her new vocation is Lisa (Chloe Boreham), who offers tips and emotional support. This gets her through the clumsy and awkward initial attempts at carrying out her new duties. Soon she believes the plan is working and she’ll be able to save her home, but alas, Francois reappears and complicates the situation.

This is the first feature film from Ms. Mackerras and the film won a Grand Jury prize at SXSW. The obvious comparison here is to Louis Bunuel’s masterpiece BELLE DE JOUR (1967) starring Catherine Deneuve, with the obvious difference being one character was bored and craved attention, while another was desperate to save her home. Self-discovery plays a role for both. The tagline for this film is: “She did everything right, until it all went wrong”, and it’s a reminder that often we find the inner strength needed during times of crisis. The film also offers up a nice moral of the story in noting the cleansing power of nature. It’s a terrific little film that flashes significant talent from filmmaker Josephine Mackerras and lead actress Emilie Piponnier.

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I’M NOT HERE (2019)

March 7, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. So many are haunted by the past – unable to move beyond either having been dealt a bad hand or having created one through their own actions. The film opens on a gaunt Steve (JK Simmons), alone in his apartment, and seemingly barely functioning. He is contemplating suicide with a shiny gun he keeps on a coffee table in a home as unkempt as himself. His only breaks are to frantically search the house for another bottle of vodka, or to listen to a phone message that kicks off yet another painful memory.

The film features three timelines for Steve: the despondent, suicidal elder; the twenties and thirties version (Sebastian Stan); and the 1960’s childhood Stevie (Iain Armitage, “Young Sheldon”). Those young years for Stevie recall his always-annoyed mom (Mandy Moore) and his fun-loving dad (Max Greenfield), while the young adult years show us his romance and marriage with Karen (Maika Monroe). It’s not long before we recognize the common thread that binds the timelines: alcoholism. First his dad’s, then his own.

Our memories tend to return in moments and flashes of events. This becomes more evident and the memories less reliable when years of alcohol abuse are in play. The flashes include the courtroom and judge of his parents’ divorce, his dad drinking, his own courting of Karen and the booze that accompanied it, the dissolution of his own marriage, and an unspeakable tragedy that ruined his life without taking it … something he is looking to remedy with that gun.

JK Simmons is remarkable here. His Steve is mired in loneliness, depression, guilt, and regrets – each amplified through booze. Simmons’ performance offers up not a single line of dialogue. He never leaves the apartment. He never has human interaction. Yet despite all of this, he never leaves our thoughts as he pinballs through his memories. Mr. Stan and Ms. Monroe provide the most telling scene outside of Simmons’ segments. Notice the difference in demeanor as he tells her he heard the shot when his dad killed himself vs how she states her mother died from cancer. This is the contrast of moving on no matter what life serves up, or being burdened with that weight forever.

The film was directed by Mr. Simmons’ wife Michelle Schumacher, and she co-wrote the screenplay with Tony Cummings (son of Emmy winning actor Robert Cummings). Mr. Cummings also appears as the judge in the divorce hearing. The film was originally shown in 2017, but is only now getting released. For fans of JK Simmons, it’s a must see.

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GRETA (2019)

February 28, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Don’t touch anything on the subway.” That should be a warning posted in all New York City tourist brochures. Recent NYC transplant Frances didn’t get the memo. She not only picks up a “lost” handbag, but also wants to personally return it to the rightful owner – despite the counseling of her streetwise roommate.  Oscar winning director Neil Jordan (THE CRYING GAME) co-wrote the screenplay with Ray Wright, and they blend in many elements … not the least of which is making friends with someone you shouldn’t.

Chloe Grace Moretz plays Frances as the good-hearted Boston-raised girl who is almost too innocent to believe, given the day and age we are in. When Frances returns the purse, she is greeted warmly and appreciatively by a kindly Greta (Isabelle Huppert). The two bond over their individual loneliness: Greta says her daughter lives abroad, and Frances’ mother passed away about a year ago. It’s easy to see how a friendship forms through a substitute mother-daughter gap-filling.

An accidental discovery by Frances sends her out the door, intent on cutting ties with Greta. What Frances soon learns is that Greta is a crafty psychopath of the highest order. It’s at this point where filmmaker Jordan kicks in the twisted, dark humor and serves us a cheap-thrills ride via a full blown stalker movie. Greta is truly deranged and once Ms. Huppert cuts loose, we see how much fun she’s having. She even plays a piano teacher, which is kind of funny since she was also the piano teacher in THE PIANO TEACHER (2001). She becomes my first and favorite Liszt loving psychopath, who likely isn’t as technologically challenged as she makes out.

There are stylistic and story elements reminiscent of movies like FATAL ATTRACTION and SINGLE WHITE FEMALE, and Jordan’s camera angles and lighting combine with Javier Navarrete’s score to dish up some B-movie type comically dark moments. Maika Monroe (IT FOLLOWS) is terrific as Frances’ roommate. She’s the direct type who tells Frances that “this city will eat you alive”, but is also extremely supportive and protective (and good at yoga).

Stephen Rea and Colm Feore appear in limited roles, but the fun you have here is directly related to how you buy into the Greta vs Frances web. It’s rare to see an onscreen female predator, but neither Mr. Jordan nor Ms. Huppert round off any edges. We are reminded that being nice doesn’t always pay off, but having friends certainly does. There is some creepy evil fun to be had, as well as a key life lesson: never trust a woman with too many purses.

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THE WEDDING GUEST (2019)

February 28, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. I pity the poor soul who, based on the film’s title, buys a ticket assuming it must be a light-hearted romantic-comedy starring Katherine Heigl. While we do watch a slow-building romance, this is much more of a road trip through parts of the world we don’t usually see on screen. Writer-Director Michael Winterbottom (A MIGHTY HEART, THE KILLER INSIDE ME, THE TRIP) has had a solid career with movies that tend to be quite watchable, though not particularly memorable. Chalk up another.

The film opens in a subdued manner with a man (Dev Patel) meticulously packing a suitcase, boarding a plane, landing in Pakistan and renting a car. These are all things any of us might do if headed to a wedding. Only this mysterious man of few words also buys 2 guns, plastic ties and duct tape. Either this is going to be a honeymoon unlike any other, or he’s on a different mission altogether. We don’t have to wait long, as the night before the wedding, Patel sneaks past the armed security guard and into the family compound so that he can kidnap Samira (Radhika Apte), the bride-to-be.

Mr. Patel plays a British Muslim man with various names and identities, and a supply of passports. He was hired by a shifty rich guy (Jim Sarbh) who loves Samira to prevent her from going through with the arranged marriage. The meet up gets delayed as the kidnapping and fallout make national news. The story evolves into a predictable and familiar road trip, but with a delightfully different setting and backdrop than what we are accustomed to. A train to Delhi plays a role with Samira and her kidnapper on the lam – working to remain anonymous.

The film does offer up some twists and turns for us, but after an intriguing first 15 minutes, we pretty much know where things are headed. Fortunately the camera work of Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (HELL OR HIGH WATER) keeps our attention, as does the back and forth between Dev Patel and Radhika Apte, two excellent performers. So yes, the film is one we can enjoy watching, though it will likely never come up in conversation.

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MAPPLETHORPE (2018)

February 28, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Writer-director Ondi Timoner goes head on (so to speak) with the story of Robert Mapplethorpe, the immensely talented and endlessly controversial photographer whose work in the 70’s and 80’s was often considered scandalous, if not pornographic. Ms. Timoner and star Matt Smith (PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES) are unflinching in this look at the artist, his personal life, and his work … although I personally flinched a few times.

The opening scene is quite unusual as Mapplethorpe is shown alone in his small dorm room, attired in full Pratt Institute uniform, just prior to dropping out. We next see his NYC meet with Patti Smith (Marianne Rendon), and watch the two oddball youngsters connect. Their relationship develops as Robert shifts from drawing to photography, stating, “I’m an artist. I would have been a painter, but the camera was invented”. The couple wriggles their way into the Chelsea Hotel and soon Mapplethorpe is focused on male nudes not just as artistic models, but also as personal pleasure. His interests send Patti Smith packing … and understandably so.

Mapplethorpe’s career takes off when Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey) becomes his benefactor and lover. Sam’s connections in the art world lead to gallery shows and work that Robert might never have attained. The film never shies away from Mapplethorpe’s daddy issues, his promiscuity, his drug use, or his intolerance of those who didn’t “get” his work. His fascination with male genitalia in both art and personal life is on full display, as many of his actual photographs are shown throughout.

Once diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, his sexual irresponsibility probably should have been emphasized, but other than that, filmmaker Timoner never tries to sugar coat the man. He seemed to crave attention, yet so many wanted love from him – Patti Smith, Sam Wagstaff, his father (Mark Moses, “Mad Men”), and his brother (who worked with him), all tried to establish that bond, but things just never quite clicked.

Other fine supporting work is provided by Hari Nef, Mickey O’Hagan (TANGERINE), Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Brandon Sklenar. Mapplethorpe’s story would likely be best handled via documentary, but Mr. Smith’s performance is worthy of attention. The film does a nice job of relaying the two sides to Mapplethorpe’s work – the provocative and the portraits. He took some iconic photos of celebrities including the cover of Patti Smith’s debut album “Horses”.

Ms. Smith’s 2010 memoir “Just Kids” paints a more complete picture of their relationship, and it’s interesting to note that although he died in 1989, Mapplethorpe’s work continues to generate emotional responses. In fact, his work inspired a national debate about whether the government should fund the arts. Ms. Timoner’s film has been well received at LGBTQ festivals, and the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation is devoted to protecting and promoting his work, while raising millions of dollars for AIDS research. His legacy is much more than some black and white photographs of nude models.

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THE HEIRESSES (2019, Paraguay)

February 28, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It would be a tight race to determine which is rarer: a Paraguayan film with distribution, or a movie centered on a middle-aged lesbian couple together for 30 years. The first feature film from writer-director Marcelo Martinessi is remarkable in its level of quiet, as everything that matters lies beneath the surface. Neither happiness nor sadness is particularly obvious at any given time.

Chela (Ana Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irun) live in the capital city of Asuncion and are both from wealthy families. They are in the process of selling off family heirlooms from their large (and well worn) house due to the debt run up by Chiquita … a debt that has her headed soon to jail after being found guilty of fraud. Chela, the introverted artist, is embarrassed and withdrawn by their situation, whereas the more affable and gregarious Chiquita takes it all in stride. We can’t help but notice that the items being sold and this couple’s relationship both seem relics of the past, trapped in a time warp.

Confinement and restrictions of movement play a role for both women. Obviously Chiquita is confined to jail, while the cave-like house surrounds Chela. Early on, we see further contrasts. Chiquita flourishes in jail, while Chela struggles with the placement of her coffee cup on the silver serving tray delivered by her maid (Nilda Gonzalez). In fact, the hiring of a maid is somewhat confounding to us – who does that while selling off furnishings to make ends meet?

Although Chela refuses help from the friends she has generously assisted over the years, circumstances are such that she kind of falls into a private uber-taxi business for the local ladies (doctor appointments, card games, funerals, etc). Chela slowly begins to discover living life again. After years of not driving, she’s a bit nervous at first, but driving the car is her literal vehicle to a new life approach. Her jail visits with Chiquita are a bit awkward, but things turn for Chela when she meets and becomes enamored with Angy (Ana Ivanova). Angy is a lively woman who ignites interest and hope within Chela. As an object of desire, Angy excels … turning Chela on to designer sunglasses and cigarettes.

All three lead actresses are relatively inexperienced, cinematically speaking; yet each delivers an exceptional performance. Ms. Irun is a stage veteran, while Ms. Ivanova has a terrific screen presence. Most remarkably, this is Ms. Brun’s first movie role, and she excels as a quiet listener and silent observer through doorways. As she emerges from the shadows, her transformation offers hope, while still remaining cloaked in sadness. A more experienced actress might have instinctually offered up a more showy performance, though Ms. Brun’s Chela is what keeps us mesmerized.

To call this film female-centric is an understatement. The few men are mere blurs on the screen. It’s no wonder the film has been so well received at festivals, as the story, performances, music and camera work offer something a bit out of the norm. It was Paraguay’s submission for Best Foreign Language Oscar, and it would have fit quite comfortably with the final nominations.

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