ANNETTE (2021)

August 5, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. The anticipation of seeing a film directed by Leos Carax (HOLY MOTORS, 2012), and written and scored by Ron Mael and Russell Mael of Sparks fame, is derived from expecting the unexpected … experiencing something we’ve never before experienced cinematically. And although the film is likely to be quite divisive – beloved by some, dismissed by others, confusing for all – the ingenuity, creativity, and risk-taking are quite something to behold. As for the narrative coherence? Well that’s quite a different topic.

A mere six weeks ago I watched and reviewed Edgar Wright’s excellent documentary THE SPARKS BROTHERS, where Ron and Russell discussed their affinity and vision for movies, despite a few near misses over the years. This particular material was originally conceived as a rock opera album, and it’s probable that very few directors would even attempt the transition to the big screen. It would be equally challenging as an opera, a play, or a stage musical. In simple terms, this is a musical-drama-romance; however in reality, it’s confoundingly difficult to define or describe.

The opening sequence begins in a recording studio with director Carax at the sound board as the Sparks band performs “So May We Start?” Soon they are marching the streets of Santa Monica, joined in singing the song by the lead actors of the movie we are about to watch. The narrator tells us, “Breathing will not be tolerated”, which takes on a touch of irony during a pandemic.

Adam Driver stars as Henry, an offbeat stand-up comedian, and Oscar winner Marion Cotillard stars as Ann, a popular opera singer. Henry bills himself as ‘The Ape of God’ and performs an abrasive comedy act that is interactive with his audience. He psyches up for each performance by shadow-boxing in a robe while puffing on a cigarette. Ann is often shown alone on stage (Catherine Trottman sings the opera parts, while Ms. Cotillard sings the rest). The couple is engaged when we open, and they later marry, have a child (the titular Annette), and take different approaches to their career. Henry and Ann are polar opposites and that’s best exemplified by how they end their respective shows: he ‘moons’ his audience, while she gracefully bows in appreciation.

Henry is a man filled with love, yet clueless on how to love. He’s a tortured soul – the kind that doesn’t believe he deserves the life he has and finds a way to self-destruct. Henry and Ann are passionate lovers and their duet “We Love Each Other So Much” has the most unusual timing that you’ll see in a musical; in fact, the musical interludes (with repeating lyrics) often arise at the most inopportune (or at least unexpected) moments. Ms. Cotillard’s talents are never fully utilized, while much of the film’s weight is carried by Mr. Driver.

After tragedy strikes, the story becomes quite bizarre with Henry and “Baby Annette”. To say more would spoil that which should remain surprising. Simon Helberg’s role as conductor increases in the second half, and his character’s past with Ann lends itself to the complexity of relationships. This is a dark love story, and one that befuddles right up to the end. Director Carax and the Mael brothers could slide into the Avant-garde corner, but that might scare off even more potential viewers, so let’s use ‘fantastical’ instead. Sometimes it tries a bit too hard to shock or agitate, and the stories are a bit discordant, but it’s all for a good cause: provocation. The film, dedicated to Carax’s daughter Nastya (who appears in the opening sequence), sometimes feels like the wild nightmares that you (mostly) don’t want to end. And that’s about all that should be said to preserve the experience.

This Musical opens in theaters on August 6, 2021 and on Amazon Prime Video on August 20, 2021

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JOHN AND THE HOLE (2021)

August 5, 2021

Oak Cliff Film Festival 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Why would anyone be surprised that the actions of a teenager make no logical sense? Thirteen year old John (an excellent Charlie Shotwell, CAPTAIN FANTASTIC, 2014) comes across as a shy kid, and a curious one as well. He’s a talented tennis player, enjoys going head-to-head in video games with his online friend, and even plays piano. Despite his upper class family life, we sense there is something a bit off about John – although his busy parents are supportive and his banter with his older sister is pretty normal. But his emotionless demeanor sends our mind to dark, uncertain places … places we hope John doesn’t go, although we kind of expect him to.

This is the first feature film directed by Pascual Sisto, and the script comes from Oscar winner Nicolas Giacobone (BIRDMAN, 2014). You should know it’s not the typical narrative arc. One day John, with the help of his shiny new drone, locates a long-forgotten unfinished bunker in the nearby woods. The next thing we know, John has drugged his family and dumped them in that hole. That’s not a spoiler, as it’s shown in the trailer. When Mom (Jennifer Ehle, SAINT MAUD, 2020), Dad (Michael C Hall, “Dexter”), and sis (Taissa Farmiga, “American Horror Story”) awaken in the mucky pit, they are frightened and confused. When John appears to deliver food and blankets, he offers nothing in the way of an explanation.

As movie watchers, we have been conditioned to expect this type of situation will lead to significant violence. Instead, we watch as John steps into his newfound freedom. His image of adulting is what he’s observed from his parents: classical music, wine, cooking, milking the ATM, and driving the car. He has bypassed the coming-of-age stage, passed “go”, and moved directly into his version of adulthood. We know this can’t end well, but John is thirteen and isn’t mature enough, regardless of this manufactured freedom, to plan ahead.

This is a wealthy family living in a glass house … an unmistakable metaphor. A sense of entitlement and pursuit of money has distracted the parents from focusing on the importance of teenage years. Whether they realize this looking up at him from the bunker is debatable. John’s story is told by a mother to her daughter, an unusual sequence that acts as an awkward framing device. Cinematographer Paul Ozgur delivers terrific camera work with the house, the bunker in the woods, and John’s odd demeanor. This is an unsettling film that is more psychological drama than thriller or character study. It clearly borrows from two masters, Michael Haneke and Yorgos Lanthimos, but falls short of their best work (as you’d expect). Still, the film has a certain style, and reminds us that the moral to the story of a teenager’s actions often boils down to “don’t do that”.

Opens in select theaters and On Demand August 6, 2021

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NAKED SINGULARITY (2021)

August 5, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. After co-writing the screenplay (adapted from the Stephen King book) for the box office horror hit IT (2017), Chase Palmer gets his first opportunity to direct a feature film. He also co-wrote this screenplay with David Matthews, as the two have adapted the 2008 novel “A Naked Singularity” by Sergio De La Pava. Think of it as a meaning-of-life science fiction comedy drama heist film that critiques the justice system. You know what they say about trying to be all things to all people. But it does get bonus points for trying hard!

John Boyega (Finn in the STAR WARS movies) stars as Casi, a Public Defender who is exasperated with the NYC criminal court system. Casi is overworked and underpaid, and his heart of gold and frumpy suit matter little in his courtroom clashes with Judge Cymbeline (Linda Lavin, “Alice”), who thrives on antagonizing and baiting the young attorney. Casi’s early idealism has faded and now he’s just fed up, looking for a way out. The talented Olivia Cooke (SOUND OF METAL, 2020) co-stars as Lea, a bored clerk at a city impound lot. Lea is a previous client of Casi’s and they cross paths again when his lawyer friend Dane (Bill Skarsgard, Pennywise in IT) passes along a file for her latest case.

There are basically three stories going on here: First, Casi is (unsuccessfully) fighting the bias in the halls of justice. Second, there is a weird glitch in the matrix, referred to as a “ripple” by Casi’s stoner friend Angus (Tim Blake Nelson), who works out physics problems on the wall of his apartment. And third, there is a botched drug deal featuring creepy hoodlum Craig (Ed Skrein, DEADPOOL, 2016), who has dragged Lea right into his web of crime. Of course, Lea already had a criminal record, and she’s frustrated that the system penalizes her for the past … leaving her with lousy options for employment. She’s too is looking for a way out.

As the film begins, director Palmer includes a quote from Candide: “If this is the best possible world, what then are the others?” This goes directly to the dreamers – those who imagine escaping their situation, and those who imagine making it better. Act 3 becomes a heist film, but we miss out on the fun part, as the planning just seems to happen. When the big day arrives, some things go right, and some things go wrong. Mostly, it’s an unrealistic chain of events that involves every character listed above, plus The Golem (Kyle Mooney) as the leader of the drug-dealing Hasidic Jews, a couple of NYC Detectives, and a Mexican cartel boss, who raises eyebrows outbidding Craig for the Navigator where the drugs are stashed. It seems fairly likely that Lincoln contributed to the film’s production since “Navigator” is mentioned numerous times.

Director Palmer utilizes a countdown to the big event … assuming the “ripple” wouldn’t be considered a bigger event … and that provides the odd pacing for the film. Also odd is the inclusion of a Popeye Doyle reference, when it’s quite unlikely that these characters would be familiar with THE FRENCH CONNECTION. Additionally, it’s the unnatural dialogue and the wedged-in social commentary that come across as misplaced. Comparing being poor to slavery in a five second scene makes it appear the goal was to fit in as many social issues as possible within a 90 minute run time. Sometimes weird is interesting. Sometimes it’s just weird. Sometimes it’s just kind of meh.

Screen Media will release NAKED SINGULARITY in select theaters on August 6th as well as opening wide and on demand August 13th, 2021

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STILLWATER (2021)

July 29, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s understandable if you are taken in by a trailer that hints at a movie featuring an unknown dad going non-stop in cold pursuit of justice for his daughter (those numerous Liam Neeson references were for my own pleasure). In fact, this father has his own particular set of skills: he’s a master at carpentry and electrical, he speaks the Oklahoma version of English, and he owns two guns (neither of which he has with him). And yes, this film is billed as a crime thriller, but you should know, we see very little crime, and the thrills are mostly non-existent. Despite all that, I connected with the story, not as a thriller, but rather as a character study of a flawed man trying to do the right thing by his daughter and find redemption for himself.

Oscar winner Matt Damon plays Bill Baker, a quiet out of work oil worker whom we first see on a clean-up crew after a disastrous tornado. Not long after, he’s on an international flight to Marseille to visit his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin). She’s been incarcerated for five years after being found guilty of stabbing her French-Arab lover, Lina, to death. In a highly publicized trial, Allison held fast to her claim of innocence, and still does. Her father visits regularly, delivering supplies and clean laundry. Although they hug on the visits, a definite chasm exists. We later learn that Bill previously struggled with drugs and alcohol and never received votes for Father of the Year. Allison asks her father to deliver a sealed letter to her attorney claiming there is new evidence in her case – she heard a guy named Akim had bragged at a party about committing Lina’s murder.

You likely noticed the similarities to the 2007 Amanda Knox case. The differences being that was Italy, this is France; and it was Amanda’s roommate, not lover. In this movie, the media fascination is derived from the ‘rich’ entitled American white girl brutally murdering her minority working class lesbian lover (a textbook Hollywood rendering). Allison growing up poor in Oklahoma mattered little to the media.

Damon plays Bill as a stoic, Heartland of America man who’ll do anything for “his little girl”. But he’s no Jason Bourne. He’s the proverbial fish-out-of-water on this mission. He doesn’t speak a bit of French, and depends on the kindness of local actress Virginie (Camille Cottin, ALLIED, 2016) to be his interpreter and cultural guide in a world he doesn’t comprehend. Bill quickly bonds with Virginie’s precocious daughter Maya (a sterling film debut by Lilou Siauvaud), and soon a platonic family unit has formed. Bill’s frequent prayers and odd American manners are the perfect cultural clash with Virginie’s artsy French ways. Of course, this ultimately leads to a shift in the platonic nature of their relationship.

The film is directed by Tom McCarthy, an Oscar winner for SPOTLIGHT (2015). I highly recommend two of his other films, the excellent THE VISITOR (2007), and his sinfully under-seen directorial debut THE STATION AGENT (2003). McCarthy co-wrote this script with Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, and Noe Debre, which explains why the French details are so spot on. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi delivers brilliant camera work to go with the story’s methodical pacing, and Mychael Danna’s music adds intensity and depth to situations both quiet and fraught with emotion. Damon does some of his best work here as a man burdened with his own past and slowly becoming aware of possible personal and family life redemption. Ms. Breslin burst on the scene in 2006 with LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, and she has transitioned well to adult roles … though this role is somewhat abbreviated, she still does nice work in her scene with Maya and Virginie.

Bill and Virginie and Maya have some terrific segments together, including a dance to Sammi Smith’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night”. I’m guessing the rousing applause the film and actors received at Cannes was due partly to its French setting, and also to the depth of Bill’s character (and Damon’s performance). There are elements that seem far-fetched and maybe even overly complex, but viewed as the story of one man, it delivers some thought-provoking topics to the big screen. And yes, “life is brutal”.

Opens in Theaters Friday, July 30

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OLD (2021)

July 23, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. THE SIXTH SENSE (1999) and UNBREAKABLE (2000) created a movie bond with filmmaker M Night Shyamalan that will always exist. In other words, I continue to go into each of his projects with hopeful expectations of another classic. Of course, some have been pretty good (SPLIT, 2016), while others are barely watchable (THE LAST AIRBENDER, 2010). His latest lands somewhere in the middle, but does feature a stunning beach setting (Dominican Republic) – one whose tropical beauty hides a sinister reality.

The film’s synopsis is captured in the trailer: tourists experience a mystifying and terrifying phenomenon while on a day trip to a gorgeous secluded beach. The director adapted the film from the 2010 graphic novel “Sandcastle”, written by Pierre-Oscar Levy and Frederick Peeters. Shyamalan specializes in one thing: big and creative ideas. He is a risk-taking filmmaker, but one not always focused on execution, coherence, or details. Especially awkward here is the dialogue. None of these characters talk like real people. Lending to the awkwardness is the attention given to each character’s name and occupation … except for the kids, where age is the significant data.

Due to the nature of the story (and the effects of the beach), the cast is significantly larger than the number of characters. We ride along with one family as they first approach the luxury resort. Insurance actuary Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his wife, museum curator Prisca (Vicky Krieps) are vacationing with their 11 year old daughter Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and 6 year old son Trent (Nolan River). The couple clearly have a strained relationship and appear headed for a break-up. Encouraged by the resort manager to spend the day at a secret remote beach, they are joined by Charles (Rufus Sewell), a surgeon, his calcium-deficient trophy wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee), their young daughter Kara, and the doctor’s elderly mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant). Another couple is there as well, nurse Jarin (Ken Leung) and his wife Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a psychologist. Already at the beach when they arrive is rap star Mid-sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre), replete with bloody nose and the corpse of the woman who accompanied him.

It’s best not to go into specifics about the progression of things for these folks on the beach, but it can be noted that they frantically try to find a way back to the resort. When all attempts prove unsuccessful, that ridiculous dialogue fills in many of the gaps for us, though you should know the science doesn’t hold up … think of it as fantasy instead. As their day at the beach moves forward, other actors take over: Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie are teenage Trent and Maddox, Eliza Scanlen is Kara, and later, Emun Elliott and Embeth Davidtz become Trent and Maddox. It becomes frustrating for viewers as the professions are emphasized: Guy spouts statistics at every turn, Prisca discloses she’s not a pathologist, and Patricia attempts to get everyone to bring their feelings to group. Ugh.

Despite the many missteps and the overall mess of characterizations, Shyamalan (who also appears as the driver who drops them at the beach) does serve up a creative idea – one that will likely get viewers questioning their own mortality and how best to spend time. Mental illness is addressed in a crude manner with Rufus Sewell (a fine actor) bearing the brunt of a poor script, while physical afflictions and the effects of age come off a bit better. The strange looking woman serving up custom cocktails at the resort is Francesca Eastwood (Clint’s daughter), and Shyamalan’s patented plot twist ending does make sense and even has a contemporary feel to it.

Opening in theaters on July 23, 2021

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JOE BELL (2021)

July 22, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Given his track record, Mark Wahlberg is not the guy that first comes to mind for a message movie about tolerance and inclusion. On the other hand, he’s perfectly cast as a macho Oregon dad struggling with his own prejudices when his son comes out as gay. Director Marcus Green (MONSTERS AND MEN, 2018) is working with a script co-written by Diana Ossana and the late, great Larry McMurtry, and though the film touches on some topics of conflict, it does so in a manner that plays comfortably for mass audiences. Mr. McMurtry passed away earlier this year, and the two co-writers shared an Oscar for their screenplay of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2015).

Wahlberg plays Joe Bell, and the film is based on the true story of Bell’s decision to walk across America – from Oregon to New York City in honor of his son Jadin (played well by Reid Miller). Oregon was home, but the Big Apple was where Jadin dreamed of living – a place more accepting of him. We witness some of the relentless bullying and abuse Jadin endured at school and the Principal’s appalling reaction, and we also see his home life: a dad who tries to avoid the issue and a loving mother (Connie Britton) who is not a woman of action.

While on his tribute walk, Joe stops at schools and community centers to tell the story of Jadin and express the importance of kindness and tolerance. Of course, this is also a time for some personal emotional cleansing for Joe … an act of atonement, if you will. There is a twisty plot device that is evidently supposed to be a surprise, but there was no need to make it such – it would have still worked just fine. One of the best sequences occurs when Joe crosses paths with a small town Sheriff played by Gary Sinise. It’s a cathartic few minutes that allows a fine actor (Sinise) to play the role of a father unloading the burden of guilt.

The past few years have inspired many of us to face our personal prejudices and perspectives, and this message movie reminds us that homophobia still exists and often overpowers the kindness of others. Jadin’s essay describing being “surrounded by people that hate you” probably hits home for far too many.

Opening in theaters on July 23, 2021

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SETTLERS (2021)

July 22, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. With billionaires building their own rockets and blasting off into space, a film about the colonization of Mars doesn’t seem as far-fetched as it did in TOTAL RECALL (1990), or even THE MARTIAN (2015). In his first feature film, writer-director Wyatt Rockefeller minimizes the science-fiction aspects and focuses more on human nature.

A family of three is making their way day-to-day in a compound. Father Reza (Jonny Lee Miller, “Elementary”), mother Ilsa (Sofia Boutella, THE MUMMY, 2017), and daughter Remy (an excellent Brooklyn Prince, THE FLORIDA PROJECT, 2017) have their own greenhouse to grow food, and even (somehow) raise their own pig. We learn they are living in some type of bubble which allows them to breathe without masks, and they have a water supply, though that’s one of countless things that are never explained.

One morning the family awakens to find “LEAVE” scrawled across their kitchen window. It turns out Jerry (Ismael Cruz Cordova, “Ray Donovan”), has returned to reclaim what he says was his family’s home. A battle ensues, and Jerry invites Ilsa and Remy to stay – as long as they don’t bother (or attack) him. Everyone seems to have weapons, though again, we never learn “what’s out there” as a threat.

Remy befriends a droid that resembles WALL-E. She names it Steve. Steve mostly lurks until one crucial scene which seems to come out of nowhere. This is after the ‘last man and last woman’ scenario is introduced with Nell Tiger Free (“Servant”) playing older Remy. Director Rockefeller filmed in South Africa which proves to be an effective stand-in for the surface of Mars, but just leaves too many questions unanswered for this viewer. The human nature aspect is well-handled. We hear Reza tell Remy, “We left Earth because we wanted more.” And later, “Someday it will be just like Earth”, the latter statement seemingly contradicting the first. However, the actions and attitudes of people on Mars seem to be all too similar to Earth’s inhabitants – and that’s a shame.

Opening in Theaters and On Demand on July 23, 2021

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@ZOLA

July 1, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. As far as I can tell, this is the first feature film based on an actual Twitter thread. Writer-director Janicza Bravo (LEMON, 2017) works with co-writers Jeremy O Harris and the real life Zola, A’Ziah King to mold the viral 148 Tweets (#TheStory) from 2015 into a somewhat coherent film that may just provide a bit more insight into the social media world than we’d prefer in one sitting. A24 movie studio proves yet again their original, creative, and unique films are unapologetically outside the industry norm … and they are generating quite a loyal following because of it.

Taylour Paige (Dussy Mae in MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM, 2020) stars as Zola, a waitress with perfect certain “features” according to one of her customers. Zola and Stefani (played by Riley Keough, Elvis’ granddaughter who continues to build a strong and diverse resume, including a standout performance in AMERICAN HONEY, 2016), have an instant connection, and the next day they are off on a road trip to Florida to make big bucks dancing at exotic clubs. Accompanying them are X (Colman Domingo, Cutler in MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM, 2020), and Derrek (Nicolas Braun, “Succession”), Stefani’s doofus boyfriend.

Be forewarned: this is not the zany female buddy comedy the trailer teases. It’s a dark, twisted comedy laced with dangerous situations and violence. While Zola was led to believe this was a dancing trip for real cash, it turns out X is really Stefani’s pimp, and though Zola stands firm in not taking the sex for cash route, she’s prevented from leaving by a forceful X, no longer the charmer she first encountered. Zola’s wise-to-the-world ways allows her to assist Stefani in upping her cash flow, but things go wrong when Derrek socializes outside the group.

After the infamous Twitter thread, “Rolling Stone” writer David Kushner published an article entitled, “Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga ever Tweeted”. This is an alternate universe to many of us, though it’s pulled from the “pages” of today’s online culture. Much of the dialogue is in Twitter-speak, and the new Tweet ding is used to emphasize certain spoken lines (think rim shots). Director Bravo instills the “B-word” at the same pace that Tarantino uses the F-word, and it should be noted that both actresses are terrific. Ms. Keough will likely make you laugh, while simultaneously making you uncomfortable. It’s a case study in cultural appropriation – especially her dialect, which is purposefully offensive. We aren’t accustomed to seeing this type of humor these days, but Keough is to be commended for going all in. Ms. Paige’s performance is much different, but no less impactful as her Zola tries to make the best of a horrible situation.

This is a wild story with characters I can only hope you don’t recognize from your own life. It begs the question, what kind of relationships arise from social media? We go a bit deeper on Zola, but really we don’t know much about these people. They are as deep as social media allows, while also serving up a warning to those who might somehow believe internet interactions are anonymous and harmless.

Now showing in theaters nationwide.

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LANSKY (2021)

June 24, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. If asked, the vast majority of movie lovers would name THE GODFATHER (1972), THE GODFATHER II (1974), and GOODFELLAS (1990) as the quintessential mafia movies. Sure, there are dozens of others, but that mob triumvirate has ruled the roost for many years. It’s doubtful writer-director Eytan Rockaway ever gave one moment of thought that his second feature, written from a story by his father, author Robert Rockaway, might join the ranks of those top three, but that doesn’t prevent it from being a quite interesting tale based on true events.

Sam Worthington (AVATAR, 2009) stars as David Stone, a writer who had some success a few years back with his Kennedy biography. Since then, he’s struggled in both his personal and professional life. In 1981 when an elderly Meyer Lansky (Harvey Keitel) contacts him to write the true Lansky story, David jumps at the opportunity, seeing it as a solution to his many problems. The two men meet at a Miami diner that Lansky frequents. These diner meetings form the structure of the story, and director Rockaway uses flashbacks to the 1940’s to “show” us what Lansky is telling his biographer from the booth.

John Magaro plays the younger Lansky, a man who is remarkably good with numbers and calm, yet forceful, in his demeanor. Lansky has partnered with Ben “Bugsy” Siegel (David Cade), who provides some muscle and flamboyance that Lansky lacks. We see the development of their business, and how Lansky’s shrewd business acumen leads to a connection with Lucky Luciano, as well as providing the government with intelligence during the war. Lansky’s story to David glosses over the bootlegging and other revenue streams to concentrate on gaming, which of course, is now legal in many states.

The supporting cast includes Minka Kelly as David’s fling at the motel, AnnaSophia Robb as Lansky’s wife Anne, Shane McRae as Lucky Luciano, and David James Elliott as the FBI Agent obsessed with solving the long-dead Lansky case and locating the $350 million supposedly hidden away. As you might expect, the story bounces from Miami to New York City to Cuba (a stunning Colonial Hotel in Havana) to Vegas to Geneva and even Israel, where Lansky attempted, unsuccessfully, to live out his life.

Lansky’s biggest impact was facilitating the connection between the Italian, Irish, and Jewish mafia at a time when so such bond existed. We twice hear him answer, “I have no knowledge on the subject”, when questioned about organized crime. On his death in 1983, Lansky had no convictions – all charges had been dropped. A doctor’s diagnosis of terminal lung cancer led him to reach out to an author so that his story could be told. We don’t learn much about “Murder, Inc.” but we do understand Lansky’s commitment to “control the game”. Rockaway has delivered an intriguing profile of an enigma from inside the mafia … and screen vet Keitel makes it all believable.

In Select Theaters & On Demand June 25, 2021

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12 MIGHTY ORPHANS (2021)

June 10, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Ty Roberts is a native Texan and Austin-based director committed to bringing Texas tales to the big screen. His previous film was THE IRON ORCHARD (2018) on wildcatting, and this time he tackles the 2007 Jim Dent novel, “Twelve Mighty Orphans: The Inspiring True Story of the Mighty Mites who Ruled Texas Football”. The film is inspired by the true events of a legendary Texas coach and his development of a football program at an orphanage, the Masonic Home and School in Fort Worth. Set in 1938 as the nation is still rebounding from the Great Depression and the area has earned the label, “the Dust Bowl”, the film opens at halftime of the state championship game, as the Mighty Mites limp into the locker room, battered from the first half.

The film immediately flashes back to 6 months earlier as Rusty Russell (Luke Wilson) and his wife Juanita (Vinessa Shaw) arrive at the orphanage. Both are teachers and Rusty is also tasked with starting a football program from scratch. “Scratch” may be too nice of description, as the home has no field and none of the boys have ever played the sport. If that’s not enough challenge, there is also Frank Wynn (Wayne Knight), the abusive director of the orphanage who undermines Rusty at every turn and uses his wooden paddle as a demented form of discipline. This was a different era, and it’s heartbreaking to see how orphans were treated not just as castaways from society, but also as free labor so Wynn could personally profit.

Rusty Russell’s commitment is a key to the story, and although he suffers from post-war PTSD (with flashbacks), he brings structure and humanity and teamwork to a group of boys who had none. We learn that Rusty was also an orphan, and this helps us understand why this mission was so important to him and Juanita. Martin Sheen appears to be having fun co-starring as Doc Hall, an alcoholic who not only serves as Rusty’s assistant, but who also served the home for 30 years without ever taking a paycheck. It’s Doc Hall who was responsible for luring Rusty to the home, and he’s very supportive of building the program for the boys.

The sports movie clichés are numerous, but this is the kind of story and movie that we desperately want to like – an inspirational story with clearly defined good people and villains. Boys stigmatized by society goes beyond the underdogs against-all-odds. Although they had some success on the field, the real message here is self-respect and education for those who felt superior. Co-writer Lane Garrison plays the arrogant coach of the powerhouse Polytechnic, and though the performance is a bit of a caricature, his attitude speaks volumes about the mentality of the times. Oscar winner Robert Duvall (now 90 years old) makes a brief appearance as a Freemason, who was also an orphan.

Historical significance resonates here as “Fort Worth Star-Telegram” publisher (and early Fort Worth mover and shaker) Amon Carter (played here by Treat Williams) was so enamored with the “Mighty Mites” that he got President Franklin Roosevelt to intercede on behalf of the boys when controversy struck. The Masonic home closed in 2005, but its impact remains today. One of the featured players on the team was Hardy Brown (Jake Austin Walker) who went on to serve in the Marines, and later play professional football. Rusty Russell went on to coach at SMU, and became a legend thanks to his creation of the “spread offense”.

The film was co-written by director Ty Roberts, Lane Garrison, and Kevin Meyer, and the script takes some liberties with history and the source material from author Jim Dent. Mr. Dent also wrote the 1999 book “The Junction Boys”, and spent many years as a sportswriter covering the Dallas Cowboys. On a personal level, he faced serious consequences from his run-in with the law over his many DWI convictions, and remains incarcerated today. The post-credit sequence features actual photographs and a real life update of each of the players and the key people involved. Sure, some of the acting is a bit stilted, the dialogue often unnatural, and the football sequence heavily edited, but we do find the story uplifting at a time when such stories are quite welcome.

The film opens in Texas on June 11, 2021 and then on June 18 nationwide.

***NOTE: Former Texas Longhorns defensive standout Breckyn Hager appears in the film, and thanks to one of my favorite Austinites for the heads-up

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