February 23, 2023

Greetings again from the darkness. What a treat to watch a film that doesn’t drown us in the obvious or spell out each character’s precise thoughts. There are no explosions or action sequences, and these folks are ever so believable and grounded in life. With the depth of emotions relayed, and the unhurried pacing, it’s remarkable that this is a first feature film. Writer-director Colm Bairead has based his debut on “Foster”, a story by Claire Keegan.

It’s 1981 and a mother (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh) is calling for her daughter … young Cait (an extraordinary Catherine Clinch) is difficult to spot, blending in with nature in the pasture of her family’s farm. Being nearly invisible is how Cait spends her days. Mom is just about ready to deliver a new addition to the already crowded home. One more is one too many mouths to feed since dad (Michael Patric) works the liquor harder than the farm. With no discussion, or even an explanation, Cait (approximately 9 or 10 years old) is unceremoniously dropped off at a relative’s house for the summer. By this time, we’ve noticed she is extraordinarily quiet as she tries to remain unnoticed in her out-of-sync world – a home that lacks warmth and obvious love.

Cait is immediately struck by the kindness and tenderness shown by Eibhlin (Carrie Crowley), the woman at the new house who casts a fawning gaze at the child. Eibhlin’s husband, Sean (Andrew Bennett), is not nearly as welcoming of the girl, and seems to avoid speaking directly to her initially. Where previously Cait lived a life of isolation, missing the adoration young kids expect from parents, she’s quick to embrace Eibhlin’s attention and chips in with chores around the farm.

For a while, our focus is on Cait and Eibhlin, but slowly it shifts as Sean gradually thaws from his early silent treatment. It’s fascinating to watch the subtle ways in which Cait and Sean develop a bond. He even acknowledges her natural tendency towards silence by advising something along the lines of, ‘many people have missed the opportunity to say nothing.’ For her, it’s been a survival instinct. To Sean, it’s often a wise choice.

The work by Director of Photography, Kate McCullough, is exceptional. The shots of nature are lovely, but it’s the way she shoots these evolving characters that really makes an impact. An example of the complexity embedded in this ‘simple’ story is how Eibhlin informs Cait that secrets within a home are a bad omen; so imagine Cait’s surprise when the neighbor (Joan Sheehy) spills the dark secret held by Eibhlin and Sean.

Gaelic is the predominant language spoken herd, making subtitles a necessity for most of us. Mr. Bairead’s film has received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language feature film, and although the story doesn’t move at the pace we’ve grown accustomed to, the ending strikes us square in the heart as we realize Cait truly feels loved for the first time.

Opens in theaters on February 24, 2023


OF AN AGE (2023)

February 16, 2023

Greetings again from the darkness. One of my (many) pet peeves involves movies where we are supposed to believe a couple finds eternal love after barely spending any time together. Now I fully understand some artistic license must be taken in love stories, as there are only a couple of hours to work with, but the challenge is making the audience believe it. For the films that do it right, it’s a thing of beauty.

Macedonian-Australian writer-director Goran Stolevski handles this expertly in his first film since the excellent (and much different) YOU WON’T BE ALONE (2022). A frenetic opening pace has 17 year old Kol (Elias Anton) panicking when his best friend Ebony (Hattie Hook in her first feature) phones after a wild night of partying. The two are supposed to be in the finals of an amateur ballroom dancing contest. Kol gets a ride from Ebony’s older brother Adam (Thom Green), and as the two search for Ebony, a natural bond begins as easy conversation covers numerous topics. When Adam matter-of-factly admits he’s gay, Kol’s nervous energy shifts into overdrive.

This bond only has a 24-hour window to blossom, as Adam is headed to South America for graduate studies. But what a 24-hour period it is. The two men continually cross paths, and so much is conveyed with very few spoken words. Glances, body language, and eye-contact are all that’s needed. That opening period takes place in 1999, and we then jump ahead to 2010. My, how time and age changes things … and yet, doesn’t.

We often see the fallout from unrequited love, but what of ‘partially’ requited love? Few films have better captured longing and emotional pain. We feel the aching and see it on Adam and Kol. Many scenes take place in a car, adding to the closeness and feeling of magnetic pull. For me, director Stolevski utilizes a few too many close-ups, although the approach does add to the intensity of some moments. The film may not be heavy on plot, but the emotions are strong enough to keep us invested.

Opens in theaters on February 10 and expands on February 17, 2023


CLOSE (2022)

January 27, 2023

Greetings again from the darkness. Coming of age stories are immensely popular in literature and cinema. And why not? We all go through the stages (some more effectively than others). Writer-director Lukas Dhont is no stranger to backlash and criticism after his 2018 feature film debut, GIRL, and the approach he took on transgender issues. This time the topic is different, yet his approach still opens him up to additional criticism. However, if the viewer isn’t on a quest for controversy, this story from Dhont and co-writer Angelo Tissens is quite touching.

Leo (Eden Dambine) and Remi (Gustav De Waele) are 13-year-old best friends. The thing we notice immediately is that their bond is unusually close, even for adolescent buddies. They each seem complete only when in the presence of the other. Remi is a very sensitive young man who excels at playing oboe on the school stage as he’s cheered on by Leo.

Of course we all know that 13-year-old classmates are not known for tact and diplomacy, and soon the biting comments find flesh (so to speak). Remi mostly pays no mind to the cracks, but Leo starts to question the friendship. He seeks out other connections, and even finds a way to appear more macho, despite his androgynous appearance and mannerisms.

Remarkably, both of these young men are first time actors. Mr. Dambine has an especially appealing screen presence. Also effective are Emilie Dequenne and Lea Drucker as the boys’ mothers, yet mostly the focus here is on the boys and how pure their emotions are until corrupted by others. Also at the forefront is a theme of learning to deal with loss and guilt, even at a young age. It can be easy to dismiss such films as manipulative, yet sometimes the writing and acting are such that the story strikes the right note. That’s what filmmaker Lukas Dhont has done here, and he’s rewarded Belgium with an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film.

Opening in limited theaters on January 27, 2023


DECISION TO LEAVE (2022, South Korea)

December 14, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. For the first half hour, we can’t help but think, “we’ve seen this all before.” A straight-as-an-arrow police detective falls hard for a suspect in a murder case. Sure, the familiar story line is often fun to watch, but we are initially a bit disappointed since this is the work of writer-director Park Chan-wook, the filmmaker behind OLD BOY (2003) and THE HANDMAIDEN (2016). Of course, we worried needlessly. The masterful director then begins twisting and turning characters and events in this homage to Hitchcock’s VERTIGO.

A crime thriller built upon fatalistic romanticism is the foundation of the best film noirs in history, and that is exactly how Park and co-writer Jeong Seo-Kyeong construct this story. Park Hae-il stars as Hae Jun, a married Busan police detective who suffers from insomnia and withdrawals from the cigarettes his wife (Jung Yi-seo) prohibits him to smoke. As with many detectives, Hae Jun obsesses over his unsolved cases, but things change quickly when the mangled body of a married man is found at the foot of a mountain. Did he fall? Did he jump? Was he pushed? The victim’s wife Seo-rae (a phenomenal Tang Wei) is suspected, but Hae Jun defends her as not capable.

The best love stories involve obsession, and Hae Jun becomes obsessed with Seo-rae, or is it she who becomes obsessed with him? The number of twists and turns director Park throws at us are nearly impossible to track … and we aren’t sure which are pertinent and which are distractions. The tiresome cell phone trope comes into play, only this time it plays a vital role and is not just used as a tech cop out. At times we are led to believe Seo-rae, despite being a beloved caregiver for the elderly, is the devil in disguise. Other times we aren’t sure if she is the clever one, or whether that’s Hae Jun. His “daydreams” of being in the same room and spending time with her are well played.

The script is well-written and the score works perfectly. Some of the dialogue is sharp and serious, while some carries subtle humor. My three favorites were the best ever use of “shattered”, a man introducing himself as “the next husband”, and this line: “Killing is like smoking. Only the first time is hard.” For those who enjoy noir crime thrillers with a dark romantic undertone, you’re very likely to appreciate this film from director Park Chan-wook and the mesmerizing performance by Tang Wei.

***NOTE: this is South Korea’s official submission for Best Foreign Language Oscar.



December 12, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. The expert photography and artistic approach taken by Shaunak Sen in his documentary is quite something to behold, even as the message may be a bit heavy-handed. His opening shot perfectly captures all of this, as a sea of rats scrounges for food through the trash while the headlights of an approaching car drive home the point that it’s the humans who have thrown things out of balance.

Most of the film is focused on two brothers, Nadeem and Saud, who have dedicated much of their lives to wildlife rescue … especially as it relates to Kite Birds. Now you may consider yourself a nature lover and even an environmentalist, but these two have reportedly treated over 20,000 birds. That’s what I mean by dedication!

Documentarian Sen has crafted a film that is simultaneously neither and both a nature and climate change film. New Delhi is one of the world’s most overpopulated and polluted cities. The film is meant to remind us that all creatures must breathe the same air, and when that air is so bad that birds drop from the sky, it can be assumed that the other beings of the area – people, rats, dogs, cows, pigs, mosquitoes – are also being negatively impacted.

These brothers believe that their efforts may have a spiritual or religious payoff, but mostly they believe one should make the difference they are able to make, even if that difference is to the Kite birds flying above. We also understand that it’s humans who have corrupted the air and land, and are the force behind wars being fought. Despite all, it’s nature that persists, even if society may not. Sen’s film may be a bit long, but he ensures all viewers understand.



November 24, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Many filmmakers mine their own lives for projects, making their work personal, revealing, and sometimes invasive. It’s easy to label these works as narcissistic, and by definition, that would be accurate. However, some of the finest films from our most interesting writer-directors fall into the autobiographical (or semi-autobiographical) category. Examples include Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963), Cameron Crowe’s ALMOST FAMOUS, and Woody Allen’s STARDUST MEMORIES. This time it’s Oscar winner Alejandro Inarritu looking inward. Inarritu won his Oscars for THE REVENANT (2015), and his previous nominations include BIRDMAN (2014) and BABEL (2006), and those are in addition to his other standouts: BIUTIFUL (2010), 21 GRAMS (2003), and AMORES PERROS (2000). He’s joined on this project by his BIUTIFUL and BIRDMAN co-writer, Nicolas Giacobone.

The film begins with a Terrence Malick-like dream sequence of a man leaping and flying through the desert as his shadow follows below. Next, we see a woman giving birth in a hospital as her husband lends support. Only this time, the mother and doctor agree that the baby didn’t want to come out, so they put him “back in.” The father is Silverio (Daniel Gimenez Cacho, (BAD EDUCATION 2004, CRONOS 1993), and it’s quite obvious he is representing our real-life director, Mr. Inarritu. A few years later we are informed that Silverio, a respected journalist and documentarian, has become the first Mexican selected for a prestigious award in the United States.

Griselda Siciliani plays Lucia, Silverio’s wife, and she is integral to his life, yet we witness much of his life outside of their relationship. The film struck me as a metaphysical exercise as an artist turns his lens into selfie mode. It seems as though Inarritu is coming to grips … and sharing his philosophy with us … that emotions drive the reality of our truth. Stated another way, truth is an illusion of emotion. Our emotion skews how we view everything. Additionally, he examines (his own) midlife crisis, and the corresponding insecurities, dreams, fantasies, and doubts. And since much of this occurs in his native Mexico, spiritual and cultural aspects enter into what we see, as does the uncertainty of time as an element.

Inarritu and cinematographer Darius Khondji capture some startling imagery, including a sequence on the dance floor, a segment where bodies drop in the street, and a bag of Axolotls being held on the train. Much of the film has a surreal look and feel, but then there are moments that are more emotionally grounded – like the terrific rooftop exchange between Silverio and his friend Luis (Francisco Rubio). In contrast to that heartfelt conversation, there are the moments when Silverio seems to be heard by others without his speaking. “Move your mouth when you speak”, he is told … yet, his thoughts are conveyed.

The use of sound is masterful, and is crucial to numerous scenes. A second watch will allow me to more fully appreciate this aspect. However, at two hours and thirty-nine minutes, Inarritu likely had many thoughts and ideas, and we find ourselves wishing things were a bit tighter on the editing side. Still, while the film may be self-indulgent and ego-driven, it’s also spectacular and stunning filmmaking. There are some slyly comedic touches, and the best may when this Netflix production doesn’t shy away from taking a jab at its competitor, Amazon.



October 15, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. There has been no shortage of conspiracy theories, either recently or historically, that have left non-believers bewildered at how ‘the other side’ held firm. Writer-director Arthur Harari and his co-writers Bernard Cendron and Vincent Poymiro bring the remarkable struggle of Hiroo Onoda to the screen. Onoda was a Japanese soldier who refused to believe WWII ended, and instead, continued his mission of resistance by spending thirty years in a Filipino jungle.

Onoda was only 22 when he entered the war in 1944. He is played as a young man by Yuya Endo, and in later years by Kanji Tsuda. The film goes mostly in chronological order, with only occasional flashbacks to Onoda’s “special training” by Taniguchi (Issey Ogata), his trainer and trainer. The passing of years is noted on screen, and we watch as Onoda’s squadron shrinks in size, holding at four for quite a while, before shifting to two, and finally only he remains. During the special training, Taniguchi declares, “You don’t have the right to die”, instilling a firm commitment to the cause in Onoda.

Also seared into Onoda’s brain is the proclamation of, “We’ll come back for you. No matter how long it takes, we’ll come back for you.” Still, it’s fascinating to see his determination to keep fighting, despite so many signs that the war was over. He viewed magazine articles and radio broadcasts as tricks to draw him away from his mission … going so far to decipher a coded message that was anything but that.

The young man who finally succeeds in lulling Onoda out of the jungle has his own mission – actually three of them: finding a panda, locating Onoda (by this time a legend), and tracking down a Yeti. It’s a bittersweet moment for the long-dedicated soldier, and he went on to live many more years as a home country icon – considered a nationalist man of honor by some, a murdering fool by others. The film, and Onoda’s saga, makes us question the point of war when it’s impossible to tell if the war is over or ongoing. Harari’s film is almost three hours, which is entirely too long … but significantly shorter than the time Onoda spent in the jungle.

Releasing in theaters on October 14, 2022



September 25, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Most of us are quick to judge others. Often too quick. This superb (and bleak) feature film debut from writer-director Gaysorn Thavat reminds us that our initial judgments might just be an easy “out” for us so that we may go on about our way, oblivious to the struggles of others. There is observational commentary here on what it means for a parent to love their kids so deeply, for someone to believe in themselves whole-heartedly, and for the pain an institution can cause under the guise of doing the right thing.

Essie Davis (THE BABADOOK, 2014) delivers a ferocious and authentic performance as Bunny, who is much stronger than we might originally think. Is she more determined or desperate? We aren’t sure. She’s also very clever at times, though sometimes unable to control her emotions. Bunny’s focus is on securing housing so that Social Services will permit her kids to live with her. Currently, she’s only allowed supervised visits, and we see loves them intensely. Shannon (Amelia Baynes) is a disabled 5-year-old who loves her back, while Reuben (Angus Stevens) is an angry and frustrated 14-year old who just wants a ‘normal’ life that doesn’t involve foster homes.

Bunny is perpetual motion. She describes herself as self-employed, spending days as a “Squeegee Bandit” cleaning windshields at stoplights for loose change. She’s saving that change in a soda bottle that she keeps in the linen closet of her sister’s house. It’s here where she cleans house, cooks dinner, does laundry, and watches kids all for the benefit of getting to sleep on the couch. Her sister Grace (Toni Potter) is a late shift nurse whose husband Bevan (Errol Shand) is a d-bag in so many ways. In fact, Bevan is at the center of an incident with Bunny’s niece Tonyah (Thomasin McKenzie, JOJO RABBIT, 2019; LAST NIGHT IN SOHO, 2021) that cuts right to the heart of Bunny’s character. We see how she reacts and begin to understand how she arrived at this particular lot in life.

Thavat’s co-writers Sophie Henderson (BABY DONE, 2020) and Gregory King center much of Bunny’s actions around the birthday party she has promised daughter Shannon for her upcoming birthday party. Is Bunny fit to be a mother?  Most of the time we think she is devoting every waking moment to reuniting with her kids. However, in her worst moments, she lashes out and displays poor judgment, leaving us and Social Services with serious doubt. The past is brilliantly unfolded and never dwelled on because Bunny wakes up every morning optimistic about what lays ahead. There is a terrific sequence involving her attire, and Ms. Davis just nails the shift in tone. Hers is an award-worthy performance, if only enough people will see the film (which is doubtful). This New Zealand production expertly sets the stage with 4 Non Blondes “What’s Up” and then bookends with a different version by Willa Amai.

Opens in theaters on September 23, 2022



July 7, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. If you are one of the many who need someone to cheer for – a nice person – in order for a movie to work for you, then this latest from renowned French director Claire Denis (BEAU TREVAIL, 2019) is going to be a challenge. Ms. Denis co-wrote the script with Christine Angot (they previously collaborated on LET THE SUNSHINE IN, 2017), an adaptation of Ms. Angot’s novel.

Oscar winner Juliette Binoche stars as Sara, and we first see her whilst on an idyllic retreat with her long-time lover Jean, played by screen veteran Vincent Lindon. Sara and Jean are clearly happy and in love. When they return to Paris, we learn Sara is a talk show host for Radio France International, and Jean is a former Rugby star who has spent time in prison for an unspecified crime. His son, Marcus (Issa Perica), from a previous relationship is a troubled young man being raised by Jean’s elderly mother, Nelly (Bulle Ogier). Jean has little fatherly sense and makes only a negligible effort to help.

One day, Sara spots her former lover, Francois (Gregoire Colin), on the street. Maybe he sees her, maybe he doesn’t. Sara is overcome with emotion. Sara and Francois were together when she began seeing Jean. To make this the most French situation possible, Francois and Jean were friends and business associates at the time. It’s even implied that Jean’s crime was related to activities connected to Francois. So what happens next? Well, Francois phones Jean to offer him a chance to come back into the scouting business for a new sports agency. It’s at this point where Francois’ motivations come into question. Is he doing his friend a solid, or worming his way back into Sara’s life?

This becomes a love triangle even more complicated than most. Sara deludes herself into thinking she can once again enjoy the fruits of Francois, while also appeasing her beloved Jean. Jean is distracted by issues with Marcus, but also too proud to let Sara walk over him. On full display are the destructive effects of an affair and the lack of respect and appreciation for a strong relationship. When the power of lust and idealistic romance collide, things get emotional. Cinematographer Eric Gautier works wonders in confined spaces. We never feel like the characters have room to breathe after making another poor decision. It’s interesting to see how smoking and taking calls on the apartment balcony becomes the only “space”. The close-ups allow Ms. Binoche and Mr. Lindon to do what they do best. The music is by Stuart Staples and includes a song written especially for the film. Ms. Denis again proves adept at allowing viewers to interpret the actions of all-too-human characters.

Opening July 8, 2022



June 16, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Satire is one of the most challenging cinematic genres to get right. The script and performances are crucial, and the director must walk a fine line between too subtle and over-the-top. The long-time collaborative filmmaking team of co-writers and co-directors Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat, along with co-writer Andres Duprat, strike just the right chord and deliver a gem that is funny, insightful, and quite entertaining. The film was well received at last year’s Venice Film Festival, but is only now getting distribution.

We open on Don Umberto Suarez (Jose Luis Gomez), a wealthy pharmaceutical businessman, as he peruses the many gifts that have arrived for his 80th birthday. He’s in a reflective mood and wonders what he can do to secure his legacy so as not to be forgotten. Suarez debates between building a bridge or financing a “great” movie, one that will stand the test of time. He knows nothing of the film industry, and doesn’t bother to read the best-seller book he secures the rights to. He then meets with eccentric film director Lola Cuevas (Oscar winner Penelope Cruz, VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, 2008), yet seems oblivious to what we see – her vision runs contrary to his, as evidenced by her production notebook that looks like a teenager’s scrapbook from summer camp. She buys in to his “best cast” demands and leaves him believing “his” film is in good hands.

Ms. Cruz is so perfect in this role that even her giant frizzy flame-red wig is simpatico with director Lola’s intense personality as an auteur. Things really take off when rehearsal begins and her two lead actors arrive. Antonio Banderas plays Felix Rivero, a global movie star who lives the rock star life with women and sports cars. He’s the personality antithesis of his co-star Ivan Torres, played by Oscar Martinez, a self-absorbed stage actor who views his world as prestigious, while mocking the glitz, glamor, and money that rules Felix’s world. An architecturally stunning art institute funded by Suarez serves as the rehearsal site, since it sits empty and unused.

Felix and Ivan are to play rival brothers, and the tension that develops between the two men is hilarious … and further spurred by Lola’s acting exercises. She prods Ivan on the simple line, “Good evening”, forcing him to repeat it multiple times, just as she toys with Felix on his level of intoxication (a range of 1 to 10). To increase the tension, Lola has the men rehearse underneath a giant boulder dangling overhead by crane. As the two actors battle it out for respect from the other and favoritism from Lola, the humor escalates at the same pace as egos are wounded. After scoffing at the mention of Felix’s awards, Ivan secretly practices his Oscar-acceptance speech in his dressing room. It becomes clear that each of the men want what the other has: Felix wants prestige, while Ivan wants recognition.

There are so many terrific scenes and moments here, including a foreshadowed twist and a sequence that combines industry awards, an industrial shredder, and the strength of Saran Wrap. All three lead actors are having a blast, and the supporting cast lends authenticity to this skewering of wealth, ego, art, and the film industry. Especially effective in support are Irene Escolar as Suarez’s daughter who has been cast in the film, and Pilar Castro as Violetta, Ivan’s equally pretentious wife. This is satire at it’s finest, and the filmmakers (and Ms. Cruz) even nail the ending. Kudos to one of my favorite movies of the year.