May 7, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. A lovely opening sequence shows Karen in bed, the morning sun barely able to match the light of love emanating from inside her. We never see Karen’s lover’s face, but we hear D’s voice as the two ladies share the beginning of a day. Our next scene has Karen unable to enter the house the two shared. Ramsey the dog barks at her through the glass pane of the door that Karen’s key no longer opens. Frustrated, she hops back in her car.

We soon learn that Karen’s idea of revenge (or coping) after being dumped is to break into D’s Oregon lake house, take down a painting from over the bed, smoke some pot, drink some wine, and replay D’s voice messages. Her plan doesn’t seem to go much deeper, but it’s not long before she has met Lana, a local girl who claims to be 19 years old – though we all know she’s younger. Lana is a bit odd, though clearly attracted to Karen, herself intrigued by the unusual girl. This strange little cat and mouse game is then crashed by Beau, the handyman for D’s lake house.

The first feature from writer-director Lara Gallagher excels at keeping us off-balance, despite moving at a pace that allows the viewer plenty of time for thought and observation. Complementing the uneasiness is the score from Katy Jarzebowski, with its harsh single piano note, sometimes accompanied by violin … the sound of a horror film, though this is no Hollywood cabin in the woods. Three times we are shown the handgun in the drawer, and though it plays a significant part, it’s not in the way that our movie mind has been trained.

Otmara Marrero plays Karen, and rising star Sydney Sweeney is Lana. The two joust very well, though it’s Lana who fascinates. She’s curious of love and life, while not quite being ready. Lana is a manipulator thanks to an innocence that draws Karen in. Will Brittain (BLOW THE MAN DOWN) plays Beau in a manner of which we are never really certain – friend or foe? Finally, Sonya Walger is D. She doesn’t show up until late in the film, but she is precisely what we have envisioned.

There is an odd cadence to the film, and the performances assist with confounding us. It’s a coming of age story for two females of different ages, and we can’t help but notice that Karen has been involved in two relationships featuring the older woman/younger woman dynamic. Of course, her role reversal in the two relationships is at the core of the film. Indie band Lightning Dust contributes an outstanding song with “Antonia Jane”, and we are left thinking this is a psychological thriller without the thrills. Filmmaker Lara Gallagher has delivered a personal project reminding us that toxic relationships aren’t limited to man-woman.

Opening in Virtual Cinemas everywhere May 8, 2020

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May 4, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The grill is fired up and the beer is cold. Friends and family are gathered in the Catskills. Everything seems pretty normal until writer Edgar (Scott Cohen) sneaks off to take a “work” call in the privacy of a back room. We see the reality of his FaceTime call with his mistress Gemma (Isis Massoud), who is in full baby delivery mode. Edgar talks her through it as the midwife does her thing. The delivery and baby are so realistic that I’m fairly certain writer-director Hilary Brougher has included actual footage.

Talia Balsam stars as Edgar’s wife Lila, an artist and teacher. There is a sadness connected to Lila, and it hovers like a curse. Her initial reaction to being told that Edgar is leaving her for a new life is little more than resignation to her own life where she seems to regularly get the short end. Edgar and Lila have a teenage daughter Dara (Naian Gonzalez Norvind), and daughter Sam (Macaulee Cassady) from Edgar’s first marriage. We learn that Talia has previously endured Edgar’s wanderings, though not always gracefully. She also wonders why people are constantly leaving her – a fact of life as kids grow older.

Filmmaker Brougher counts off the days in the corner of the screen for us, and it’s helpful as time jumps a bit … although most days seem eerily similar even after Edgar leaves (he’s still around a lot). This plays out like a passive-aggressive break-up, save for one unpredictable lash-out from Lila – one that is likely a frequent fantasy of wronged spouses. Lila’s close friend Gigi (Andrus Nichols) has breast cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy, and her son Jake (Guthrie Mass) and daughter Charlotte (Violet Rea) add to the teenage angst we see from Dara and Sam. Sam’s friend Jonah (Michael Oberholtzer) has a key role as well – one that starts with sharing a sauna with Lila, and ends where you would imagine.

There is no shortage of movies or real life stories of middle-aged men starting over and “women of a certain age” are left to figure things out. Ties of a long-term marriage run deep and aren’t easily or cleanly severed; and kids, regardless of age, don’t always understand how to be supportive. Cinematographer Ethan Mass (husband to Ms. Brougher) does a terrific job with the visual landscape, as the claustrophobia of the house gives way to the stunning beauty of nature. The acting is superb throughout, and Ms. Balsam (daughter of Martin Balsam and Joyce Van Patten) excels in a rare leading role. If only the material were a bit more complex, she could be in awards consideration. Unfortunately, the restrained storytelling prevents us from connecting to Lila, despite the best efforts of Ms. Balsam. It’s clear Hilary Brougher is a filmmaker with talent, but the message that life goes on, no matter the inconveniences or heartbreaks, is just a bit too familiar and low key.

available VOD May 5, 2020

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“Hollywood” (Netflix limited series, 2020)

May 1, 2020

Netflix limited series premiering May 1, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “I want to go to Dreamland.” One might assume that phrase is related to Hollywood being the place where dreams can come true, but co-creators Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan take us down a much different path. The two have collaborated on the TV series “Glee”, “Scream Queens”, and “The Politician”, and here they offer up a revisionist history on the post- WWII Golden Age of Hollywood, in the vein of what Quentin Tarantino did in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS and ONCE UPON A TIME … IN HOLLYWOOD. Mr. Murphy and Mr. Brennan seemingly focused on idealistically imagining a film industry where one’s race, ethnicity, or sexual preference made little difference. In doing so, they devote significant time to racism and homophobia.

While the series mixes fact and fiction in such a way that the lines are often blurred, there are two main storylines that provide the backbone of the series: the actual suicide of 24 year old actress Peg Entwistle, which occurred in 1932 when she jumped from atop the Hollywoodland sign; and the mostly fictional crossing paths of a handful of aspiring actors, writers and filmmakers as they navigate the treacherous film industry waters. We see the new generation clashing with the establishment – a tale as old as time.

The 7 episodes cover approximately 7 hours, but it was somewhat challenging to make it through the first three. However, I’m so glad I stuck with it. The series starts off with what seems like a concerted effort to push every boundary possible in regards to sex and racism, with an emphasis on the proliferation of homosexuality within the industry. The characters that are new to town are trying desperately to survive as cling to the dream of their big break.

The series elevates significantly in Episode 4 when the attention turns to filmmaking and acting and running a studio. There is a terrific sequence where we bounce back and forth between two pairs of actors rehearsing for their auditions. We feel the pressure that actors endure during the audition process, and note the fine line … almost an indiscernible line … between success and failure. In addition to the newcomers trying to secure roles, we follow a gay, black first time screenwriter and a half-Filipino first time director. As a bonus, Eleanor Roosevelt is portrayed as preaching the social importance of a studio breaking from the industry norm.

“What if you could re-write the story?” is the tagline, and it applies not only to the screenplay of “Peg” (the movie within the movie), but also to Murphy and Brennan as they show how the industry should be, well except for the illicit sex, marital affairs, and mob interventions. Hypocrisy and double-standards are part of the fabric of the movie industry, but what if that gay, black screenwriter didn’t have his work defined by those labels, or the half-Filipino director wasn’t selected because he could pass as white, or if the talented black actress wasn’t relegated to playing domestic help? Those are the core issues at play here, and each of the characters has hopes of changing things in Hollywood.

As you would imagine, the cast here is deep and crucial to whether the project works or not. There are some acting veterans mixed with some regulars from Murphy’s previous projects. The newcomers in town are actor Jack Castello (David Corenswet), actor Rock Hudson (Jake Picking), actress Camille Washington (Laura Harrier), director Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss), and screenwriter Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope). These newcomers intermingle with industry types such as super-agent Harry Wilson (Jim Parsons, who gets the best dialogue in the series), Ace Studios owner Ace Amberg (Rob Reiner), his wife Avis Amberg (Patti Lupone), their daughter wannabe actress Claire (Samara Weaving), Ace’s mistress actress Jeanne Crandall (Mira Sorvino), Ace casting director Ellen Kinkaid (Holland Taylor), studio producer Dick (Joe Mantello), and Eleanor Roosevelt (Harriet Sansom Harris). Dylan McDermott shines as Ernie, the owner of Gold Tip Service Station, where customers come for the special service offered with the code word ‘dreamland’.

There is an underlying theme where most everyone here is acting – pretending to be something they aren’t. It begs the question, how much of yourself would you surrender for fame or money, or simply to avoid discrimination and hardship? There seems to a lust for fame, and a lust for just about everything except dignity. Three real life actors are noted for how they were marginalized as people and/or professionals based on either their race or sexual preference. The stories of Rock Hudson, Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec), and Hattie McDaniel offer up real life proof of the injustice that was prevalent during this era.

Movie history buffs will enjoy the name dropping, such as George Cukor’s party, and Noel Coward, Tallulah Bankhead, and Vivian Leigh. There is also fun to be had with industry terminology, but the purpose of the project has higher meaning. The dreams of those who arrive versus the power of those already there is on full display. The internal struggles and fallout that occurs when folks are trying to fit an image rather than stay true to themselves – that message is delivered. Dylan McDermott’s Ernie is meant to represent the reality of broken dreams that happen right down the street from where dreams come true.

Stylistically, the series is beautiful to look at. Even the opening credits have a surreal quality. The set/production design is top notch, from the studio lot to the sound stages to the small apartments decorated to the era … and the cars are spectacular. Black and White images are used sparingly, but effectively to stay true to his period in cinema, and the music/soundtrack is perfectly used and could be a top seller as a standalone. Watching the great Patti Lupone is reward enough, but seeing Dylan McDermott and Jim Parsons deliver their best ever work is really something to behold. The debate of Money versus Art versus Social Responsibility could fill many textbooks, and Murphy and Brennan succeed in getting us to think. For those that can fight through the first three episodes, the payoff is there (OK, the ending is a bit hokey), and as Hattie McDaniel tells us, “the most important thing is being in the room.”

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OUR MOTHERS (Nuestras madres) 2020

April 30, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Every war is ugly and devastating, and few lasted as long as the Civil War in Guatemala, which ended in 1996 after many years and many deaths. Its history tracks back to the early 1960’s, and the fighting between the government and various leftist rebel groups was violent, resulting in more than 200,000 deaths (mostly Mayan) in the 1970’s and 80’s. In his first narrative feature, writer-director Cesar Diaz chose not to examine the causes of war, but rather the fallout … the tattered lives left in its wake.

Armando Espitia stars as Ernesto, a young anthropologist at the Forensic Foundation – an institute that specializes in locating, identifying, and carefully packaging the remains of the casualties of war. It’s 2018, and the news reports we overhear call this an “historic moment”, as war criminals are brought to trial. The film opens on Ernesto as he is assembling the skeletal remains taken from a mass burial site that the Institute was recently permitted to excavate. We soon learn that Ernesto has his own personal mission – finding out what happened to his father, who is identified only as a guerilla fighter. Ernesto’s mother (Emma Dib), with whom he lives, discourages him from searching for his dad. He states ‘I need to know’, while she says ‘I don’t wish to remember.’

Director Diaz includes a gut-wrenching sequence of women in a local village. It’s almost like a series of photographs … a lineup of local woman who are victims of the war. The work of cinematographer Virginie Surdej is extraordinary in this sequence. These aren’t actors, but rather natives to the area – women whose weathered faces show the story being told by the movie. They lead Ernesto to a mass grave on private land where many of the slaughtered men and children are buried. The atrocities toward the women were often worse than death, and now they are going about living, fully aware that their loved ones never received the respect in death that is so valued.

Ernesto takes statements from the women, and is so devoted to finding his father that his social life consists of sleeping in his car and fantasizing about the local bartender. Ernesto and the women, who are the face of war, are simply looking for closure. They want dignity for the dead, and he wants to know his roots. There is much family pain and pride, and often when family secrets gets solved, the result is more pain than relief. Director Diaz was born in Guatemala and delivers a mostly quiet film that is only 78 minutes in run time, but its message rings loud and clear … the horrors of war don’t end when the war does. The film was a multi-award winner at Cannes, and justifiably so.

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BULL (2020)

April 30, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. A film focusing on an unlikely intersecting of cross-generational dead-end lives in a mostly ignored poverty-stricken area on the outskirts of Houston may not seem like much of a pick-me-up during these challenging times. And while it’s not a crowd-pleaser, it is pleasing in a high quality independent filmmaking kind of way – especially to those of us who thrive on such projects. Writer-director Annie Silverstein’s first feature film was co-written with Johnny McAllister and Josh Melrod, and it never tries to impress with any cleverness or trickery, and instead allows us to wallow in the harshness of a world that has its inhabitants grasping for hope.

We first see 14 year old Krystal (Kris) and her little sister messing with a chicken that’s been killed by their pet pit bull in their backyard. The chicken belongs to their African American neighbor Abe, who threatens to shoot the dog if it comes in his yard again. Kris spends an inordinate amount of time taking care of her little sister. They live with their constantly annoyed grandmother while their mom is incarcerated. Jailhouse visits begin with hugs, and end with frustration. Kris seizes on an opportunity while neighbor Abe is gone for a weekend rodeo. She invites her friends over and they raid Abe’s liquor and pain pills, and trash his house. The kids all have fun, but Abe is understandably upset when he returns home.

In a show of mercy towards Kris’ grandmother, Abe agrees to allow Kris to clean up the party mess rather than be arrested and shipped to juvenile detention. Slowly, very slowly, Abe and Kris begin to bond. She is fascinated by middle-aged Abe’s history. He was once a bull rider, and now he’s a bull fighter – one of the guys in the arena who distracts the bulls so the riders can escape safely after their ride. His body and spirit are broken, and he’s constantly in pain and sore. Kris, a sullen teenager, carries her own pain. Her situation is such that we (and Abe) find it difficult, if not meaningless, to judge her. She desperately wants to be loved and cared for, but finds none of that through her family or “friends.”

Rob Morgan, who was so memorable in MUDBOUND (2017), plays Abe, a man who fights to maintain his dignity in a profession more conducive to younger folks, and with a body that continues to fail a bit more with each gore. He has some type of relationship with his ex, Sheila (Yolanda Ross), but mostly he’s alone and quiet until he’s around his fellow rodeo performers. Newcomer Amber Havard plays Kris, and captures the confusion and hurt with subtle facial movements of an actress far more experienced. The moment her mother (Peggy Schott) lets her down yet again is gut-wrenching, and we feel Kris’ pain every bit as much as we feel Abe’s pain at the tip of a bull horn.

Ms. Silverstein’s film is surely to draw comparisons to the excellent THE RIDER (2017), with its understated approach, and power in the quietness and stillness. It touches on African American rodeos, and provides a contrast with ‘white’ rodeos, while also showing us the sex and drug issues facing young Kris. With its multi-generational view of life, we see a girl desperate for a role model, and a man coming to terms with loneliness. Kris and Abe prove quite the odd couple as she finds a glimmer of hope in her desire to become a bull rider, and Abe finds a companion and reason to carry on. The two fine performances help us deal with the often bleak daily lives of Kris and Abe, and Ms. Silverstein directs her film in such a visceral way that, as viewers, we are appreciative when the cloud lifts just a bit.

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April 29, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s the first feature film from Jared Douglas, and as with most dedicated independent filmmakers, he wears many hats in this production: writer-director-producer-editor. Mr. Douglas certainly didn’t take the easy route or shy away from difficult material. Instead, he takes us deep into the dark world of mental illness.

Rather than a peek inside an asylum or mental hospital, we are up close and personal with Lucio and his struggles. Lucio is played by Christian Gnecco Quintero, and our first inclination something isn’t quite right comes when he’s buying diapers at a convenience store. Lucio gets skittish and looks around as if someone is watching or following him (the camera enhances the feeling). He calls Vanessa (Stefanie Rons) to tell her that he’s in danger and he can’t come home to her and their young daughter. Lucio then hits the road … he’s on the run from something or someone we don’t see.

Our eyes are on Lucio nearly every moment of the 84 minute run time. It’s not pleasant to see what he’s going through. Lucio is paranoid to the point of self-destruction. When his car breaks down, a kind stranger named Chris (Dwayne Tarver) takes him back to his ranch cabin. Throughout the film, Lucio flashes the ability to converse with others, but it’s never long before the illness kicks in. Even the charity or generosity of strangers isn’t enough to put Lucio at ease, and the consequences can be severe. His biggest challenge … his biggest hurdle … is himself. Periodic calls to Vanessa provide us the insight to see what a devastating scenario this is for her as well.

I know you’re out there!” The phantom is all too real to Lucio. His reality is not ours. Cinematographer Neeraj Jain effectively captures the frantic moments and Quintero’s performance relays the urgency of every tick. Mental illness is often overlooked or overplayed in movies, but not so here. There is no comic relief, only the relentless pressure of trying to make sense of the confusion.

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April 29, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you have yet to experience a mid-life crisis, it only means you haven’t lived long enough. Of course, this ‘crisis’ often has little to do with age, and can seep into your marrow at any time … even when you think your life is plodding along just fine. These little thoughts or doubts or ideas start creeping in, and soon the only thing on your mind is a sports car, a younger partner, traveling the world, writing a novel, changing careers, or yes, starting a rock band.

Meet Bruce. He’s working a dead-end job as a 40-something year old paralegal. He’s married to the lovely Liz and they have two children and a fine house. Bruce’s boss takes advantage of his lack of ambition by assigning menial tasks and requiring overtime. When a burned-out Bruce arrives home in the evening, he sees the ‘To-do’ list his wife has posted on the fridge, and he guzzles a beer before heading down to the basement to play music and write songs. It’s his escape from life, but also his tie to younger years when he and his buddies had a legitimate band named The Incoherents.

Jeff Auer stars as Bruce, and he also wrote the screenplay. When his wife Liz (Kate Arrington) green-lights his dream of getting the band back together, Bruce contacts the Hamilton brothers, drummer Tyler (Ben Foster lookalike Casey Clark) and bass player Keith (Walter Hoffman), and they all meet up at the pub owned by their former lead guitarist Jimmy (Alex Emanuel, also the film’s Music Director and a Producer). The long-standing riff between Jimmy and Bruce dates back to the band’s initial run, but soon the chill warms and the band is rehearsing at Annette O’Toole’s studio. She calls them a “lost cause.”

The (middle-aged) boys enjoy playing gigs, but can’t seem to draw a crowd thanks to their utter ignorance of marketing or social media. Enter Jules (Vincent Lamberti), an agent of by-gone years who is blunt in his assessments, even if he seems to bring little else to the band. While all of this is happening, Liz is pushing to open her own long-wanted graphic design business. The idea of both spouses pursuing their dreams is quite intriguing, but the film misses a huge opportunity by focusing almost entirely on Bruce and the band. Liz is left with the scraps of a few reaction scenes (a waste of Ms. Arrington’s talent).

This is director Jared Barel’s first feature film, and it’s likely many of the missteps will be avoided in future projects. Bruce is front and center for most of the run time, but there are other characters who seem to be much more interesting – though most of their backstories are simple teases. On the bright side, the dream of being a rock star is the dream of many, as is recapturing the vitality of a youth long passed. So the relatability factor is present.

Bruce and Liz have 2 kids, which are treated mostly as after thoughts that only come in to play when both parents have something they want to do on the same weekend. Somehow the $80 for a babysitter becomes an obstacle that can’t be overcome … this despite the band’s numerous $30 per rehearsal hour in the studio and Liz’s plane trip to attend her sister’s book signing and put together a business plan. Very little of the real world stuff makes sense, which leaves the band part feeling a bit superfluous and hokey. Amy Carlson (“Blue Bloods”) has an awkward scene as a super-promoter, and we do get see Fiona Silver perform. There are some good ideas here, but it feels like the filmmakers were a bit too close to the project for it to ever really click.

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