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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FERRANTE FEVER (2019, doc)

March 7, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. “I publish to be read.” Those are the words of Elena Ferrante, an Italian writer who is committed to having her work speak for itself. She has eschewed the celebrity status that typically accompanies best-selling authors. Where previously we have been intrigued by recluses like JD Salinger, Harper Lee, or even Howard Hughes, it’s rare (unprecedented?) that we are speaking of absolute anonymity. With no public face whatsoever behind the pen name of so many successful books, director Giacomo Durzi flirts with the question, is it the mystery of the author or the author’s work that drives interest?

It’s somewhat ironic that a film focused on an author so adamant about avoiding the spotlight opens with a quote from one of the most recognizable names and voices on the planet. Hillary Clinton describes Ferrante’s writing as “hypnotic”, and claims to ration her time for reading the books. Of course when one chooses not to talk about their work, it leaves others to do so. Director Durzi serves up a lineup of editors and writers, plus a researcher/scholar and the translator of Ferrante’s all-Italian writing.

We learn that the fuse of globalization for Ms. Ferrante’s work was lit by James Wood and his review in “The New Yorker”. This global literary phenomenon exploded from there. Insight from writers Jonathan Franzen, Roberto Saviano, and Elizabeth Strout help us understand how these books have been so influential, impacting so many readers. A segment on the Italian Strega Prize for literature is fascinating, as it becomes clear that even her home country doesn’t know how to handle her success.

Translator Ann Goldstein is interviewed, and even jokes about how unusual it is for a translator to become part of the story … another example of how Ferrante’s anonymity changes things. Ms. Goldstein is unapologetically a fan of the work and seems anxious to continue. Ms. Ferrante’s own words drawn from her letters in “Frantumaglia” hover over the film as narration, but that’s as close as we get to the real person.

Time Magazine lists her as one of the 100 most influential personalities, which is kind of funny since we don’t know her personality other than through her writing. Durzi’s film is not a search for the person or a quest to uncover the author’s identity, as it’s more of an exploration of the popularity and impact of her work. We can’t help but wonder if other writers are more envious of her writing ability or of her ability to remain anonymous. Typically the former destroys any hope of the latter … but not with Ferrante.

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CAPTAIN MARVEL (2019)

March 6, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Girl Power! Not only does this serve as an origin story for Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, but Anna Boden becomes the first female director of a Marvel movie (she co-directed with Ryan Fleck, and they previously collaborated on IT”S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY, SUGAR, and HALF NELSON). It’s Marvel’s first solo female superhero movie, and even though it’s actually a prequel to what we’ve previously seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), it clearly sets the table for AVENGERS: ENDGAME and the showdown with Thanos later this year.

Oscar winner Brie Larson (ROOM) stars as Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, and the film opens with her as Vers, a human-Kree hybrid and a soldier of Starforce being trained by Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) for a role in the Kree-Skrulls war. Part of the training includes regular reminders to keep her emotions under control … see, not only is Vers a woman but she also shoots sonic blasts from her fists. The filmmakers have not presented her story in chronological order, but have instead utilized flashbacks and memories to let us (and Carol) in on how she obtained her immense powers.

In Marvel tradition, the film uses much humor as it progresses. Proving that the action takes place in the 1990’s, the roof literally comes down on a Blockbuster video store (foreshadowing future financial events), as Vers crashes to earth. Soon she has met young agents Fury and Coulson, played by digitally de-aged Samuel L Jackson and Clark Gregg, respectively. This is of course pre-eye patch Fury, though we do get that origin story a bit later in the film. As Vers peruses the Blockbuster shelves, we get a tip of the cap to THE RIGHT STUFF and TRUE LIES, and soon thereafter, a nod to Radio Shack, pay phones, pinball machines, pagers, and 90’s era internet speed. The retro bits may be a bit overdone, but the millennial target audience will surely enjoy.

The always interesting Ben Mendelsohn plays Talos, the leader of the shape-shifting Krulls – who also sport the best make-up as they transform from pointy-eared green aliens into exact replicas of humans. Lee Pace returns as Ronan the Accuser, while Djimon Hounsou is Korath and Gemma Chan is Minn-Erva, both part of Starforce. Annette Bening plays the AI Supreme Intelligence, while Mckenna Grace appears as young Carol in flashbacks.

The glimpses of Carol Danvers as a US Air Force fighter pilot lead to the best dramatic scenes of the film – her reuniting with fellow pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and Maria’s daughter Monica (Akira Akbar). At first I was taken aback that Marvel dared cast a black actress in the role of stereotypical supportive sidekick, but then Ms. Lynch got her own impressive action chase sequence (similar to STAR WARS) and kicked some serious alien tail. Those familiar with the comics know that Maria Rambeau is the mother of Photon, a character likely to appear deeper in the universe.

The co-directors also co-wrote the script with Geneva Robertson-Dworet, and Nicole Perlman and Meg LeFauve contributed to the story. The strong female presence is impressive both on camera and off, as Pinar Toprak’s score complemented the heavy 1990’s rock music soundtrack. Again, nostalgia seems ever-present, as does the humor (Goose the cat/flerken) and good fun that existed in THOR: RAGNAROK and ANT-MAN AND THE WASP. Carol Danvers and her backstory also seem a bit more relatable than that of WONDER WOMAN.

Marvel offered up a nice tribute to the late Stan Lee by providing a new opening featuring his many cameos over the years. And yes, he was able to film his cameo for this one prior to his death in November 2018. So we have an origin story not just of Captain Marvel, but also of the Fury eye patch, the Avengers Initiative, and a prequel to all Marvel movies we’ve seen in the past few years. Two post-film stingers are included: one expected and necessary, while the other is good for a laugh. It’s an inspiring story of a young girl who repeatedly fell down and got up and brushed herself off every time – even before her fists and eye balls could shoot energy streams. It’s fitting and about time that young girls now have their own superhero to emulate.

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CASTING COUCH (2019, short film)

March 2, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s always a bit dangerous to poke fun at something that has caused so much pain to so many people, but the reality is that the proverbial casting couch has been used as an unfortunate punchline for many years. Late last year I reviewed the Barry Avrich documentary THE RECKONING: HOLLYWOOD’S WORST KEPT SECRET, which provided an in-depth history of what went on behind closed doors in Hollywood. While that film left me with a feeling of nausea, SiniSisters Productions have used their distinct talents in addressing the same topic in a more redemptive manner.

In what can be described as a Comedy-Horror film highlighted with social commentary, co-directors Justin Lee and Matt Thiesen present a script from Milly Sanders that tells the story of a casting couch demon that has been literally feeding on the flesh of aspiring actors for decades. We see “old” clips of auditions before cutting to a modern day audition of two actresses and that same “icky” velour sofa. The actresses are played by Ms. Sanders (the screenwriter) and Jessee Foudray, while the new age director is played by David Stanbra. By new age, I’m referring to the next generation of directors who have undertaken new methods of manipulating actresses in an attempt to achieve the same results as the slimy buzzards of old Hollywood.

The script is quite clever and the low budget short film (10 minutes) even features an impactful effect. Harassment and power plays have no place in any industry, and SiniSisters willingness to make a point through such a creative outlet is quite impressive … and entertaining. Any filmmakers who somehow believe the old ways are ok, should beware of the ‘couch hunters’!

***CAUTION: although this short film is not yet rated, it is not recommended for young children

Watch the movie at:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kALyJUV-EWQ&feature=youtu.be

 


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.

watch the trailer: