STEP (2017, doc)

August 8, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Amanda Lipitz proves that a documentary can be both inspiring and a bit sad. She takes us inside the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women and introduces us to the senior girls on the Step dance squad known as the “Lethal Ladies”. The school was founded in 2009 with the goal of sending every student to college, in spite of the challenges and barriers faced in this inner city community. This is the school’s first senior class, and everyone – students, teachers, parents, administration – is on edge.

Emotions overflow throughout the film. The normal roller coaster ride that accompanies high school girls is somehow magnified when the pressures of becoming the first one in the family to attend college collide with such harsh realities as poor grades, no food in the fridge, no power in the home, and inconsistent support from parental units. There is also the goal of winning the year-end Step competition against schools that have a more successful track record, and who likely don’t face the extremes of Baltimore street violence and poverty that is normal for these girls each day.

Ms. Lipitz’ film, a Sundance award winner, never backs away from the emotion of the moment and yet still manages to maintain the long-game perspective of trying to get each of these students graduated and accepted into college. She dives into the home lives of a few of these girls and though all of the parents want the best for the kids, it’s quite obvious that the type of home support and structure varies widely even amongst these few we follow.

The real beauty of this environment is that the school provides structure, guidance and support all along the way. The Step coach pushes them hard daily towards being the best they can be going into the competition. The girls also push themselves and each other, and overcome some personality conflicts, all for the sake of a stronger team. The school principal has one-on-one meetings to light a fire when necessary, and you’ve likely never seen a more dedicated high school college counselor who doles out hugs and motivation in whatever dosage is necessary.

The key message here is that it takes a combination of inner-strength and drive, and a support system of family, teachers, coaches, administrators and friends, for kids to have a chance at finding a way to succeed at life … whether that’s at Johns Hopkins or a local community college program. This is a special film with a real-world case study of students looking for a way up, and of those looking to provide the necessary boost.

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COLUMBUS (2017)

August 3, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The first feature film from Korean writer/director/editor Kogonada provides intimate and revealing slices of life that are somehow simultaneously familiar, thought-provoking, and enlightening. There is so much going in this seemingly quiet little story that we are left thinking that it could easily have been split into 2 or 3 movies.

Haley Lu Richardson stars as Casey, a local girl who works in the library and as a tour guide. She’s clearly smart, and readily admits to sacrificing her future for the responsibility of looking after her mother (Michelle Forbes) – a recovering addict to both meth and “s***heads”. Her exchanges with Gabriel (Rory Culkin) carry the weight of intellects-in-development, as well as strained attraction that is regularly shut down through sneakily awkward and uncomfortable moments. Their back-and-forth on reading, video games and attention spans is one of the best on-screen exchanges we will hear this year.

The film begins with an elderly man having some type of seizure, sending him to the hospital and canceling his scheduled architecture presentation. His son Jin (John Cho) arrives from out of town and the next morning has an initial inelegant crossing of paths with Casey. The lack of connection between the two transforms in a beautifully written and photographed scene the next day. Shot from the other side of the window glass with no audible dialogue, we witness the moment Casey lets down her guard and Jin becomes enamored. It’s a unique and wonderful scene – so quiet, yet it changes everything.

Columbus, Indiana is the other star of the film. Its famous modern architecture is featured prominently throughout as Casey guides Jin to her favorites. Their corresponding conversations, usually while puffing on cigarettes, gradually become more detailed and more revealing. Doorways, bridges, windows, and buildings become part of the conversation, and crucial to the look and feel created by cinematographer Elisha Christian.

Mr. Cho captures the stoic nature of a son inconvenienced by a Korean culture that requires him to be present should his father die. He is miffed by the need to ‘adequately grieve’ for the man who never put his own life on hold for his son. Ms. Richardson is the revelation here. Having seen her in SPLIT, THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN, and THE BRONZE, it was obvious she had screen presence, but here she shows the depth and range that portends a long and varied acting career. Her slumped shoulders and panged expression are spot on for a 19 year old who is too smart for her situation, yet too young and unworldly to know how to forge ahead.

Kogonada proves himself a sly storyteller as well as a master of visual setting, utilizing language, architecture and above all, conversation. At one point, Jin asks Casey “Are we losing interest in everyday life?” This filmmaker is doing his part to keep us aware and interested.

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IT’S NOT YET DARK (2017, doc)

August 3, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. We all have two kinds of friends: those who sulk for days when the candy machine eats their quarter, and those with such zest for life that no personal or professional tragedy dampens their “can do” spirit. Director Frankie Fenton presents the remarkable story of Simon Fitzmaurice, an Irish writer and filmmaker who is robbed of his body by MND (Motor Neuron Disease).

Fellow Irishman Colin Farrell narrates the film, giving poignancy to Simon’s own words … words he can no longer speak himself. As a writer and filmmaker, Simon’s “before” life is documented through pictures, videos and many of his thoughts on the page. He was a youngster full of ideas and energy. We learn this from his father Damien, his mother Florence, his younger sister Kate and childhood friend Phil. More than any other, we learn it from his wife Ruth. In fact, this is as much Ruth’s story as it is Simon’s. She is a special lady in love with a special man. Their story will likely resonate with you.

In 2008, Simon’s short film THE SOUND OF PEOPLE was selected to screen at Sundance. Not long after, he was diagnosed and given 3-4 years to live. Less than 10 years later, he became the subject of this documentary which was also a Sundance selection. It’s not the path he envisioned, but as he says, “For me it’s not about how long you live, it’s how you live.”

This cruel disease allows him to feel everything, yet he can’t walk, speak, breathe or eat without artificial help. The film shows us how Simon documented the many phases of the disease, right down to his last dance. One form of “artificial help” allowed him to return to filmmaking. He utilized eye gaze technology to finish writing and then direct his first feature film, MY NAME IS EMILY. With all of his physical challenges and the support of his wife and kids, it’s wrapping the movie that proved to him that he “made it back to work”. It provides the answer to his earlier question, “What is a man?”

It’s touching to hear Ruth describe how the hiring of a nurse allowed her to go back to being a wife and mother, rather than a care-giver. She and Simon even later had twins (kids #4 and 5), and he wrote a best-selling book/memoir on which this film is based. Last year the documentary GLEASON provided a similarly inspirational story about Steve Gleason, an NFL player stricken with ALS. These two films and these two men (and their wives) provide a sentimental, sincere and life-affirming message that life is worth fighting for and living to the fullest.

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FROM THE LAND OF THE MOON (Mal de pierres, France, 2017)

August 1, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Nicole Garcia (The Adversary, 2002) takes the best-selling novel from Milena Agus and harkens back to good old-fashioned movie melodrama – with a French twist. Of course, most any project is elevated with the beautiful and talented Marion Cotillard in the lead role. Few can suffer on screen as expertly as Ms. Cotillard, and she conveys that disquiet through most of this story.

What is love? You’d best not look to Gabrielle (Cotillard) for clarification. As a young woman, her search for love and sexual fulfillment follows the fantasies of the novels she reads (Wuthering Heights). Her corresponding inappropriate behavior teeters between delusion and hysteria. It’s the 1950’s in rural France, so her actions and attitude are not much appreciated, and her parents bribe Jose (Alex Brendemuhl), a local bricklayer, to marry Gabrielle. She is then given the choice of (an “arranged”) marriage or a mental institution.

As a romantic dreamer whose blurred reality expects love to mirror those romance novels, Gabrielle’s self-centeredness and failure to grasp reality results in a loveless marriage – and easily one of the most uncomfortable lovemaking scenes in the history of French cinema. Beyond that, severe kidney stones make it impossible for her to bear children. In hopes of “the cure”, she is sent for treatment to a spa in the Alps (it’s the same spa from Paolo Sorrentino’s 2015 film YOUTH).

While at the spa, she meets handsome Andre (Louis Garrel), a gravely ill soldier from the Indochina War. Gabrielle imagines Andre to be everything she dreamt a lover should be (except for that whole sickness thing). The contrast between the two love-making sessions is startling, and it seems as though Gabrielle has found her bliss.

The years pass after her release from the spa, and Gabrielle makes one mistake after another … blind to what and who is right in front of her … while holding on to the dreamer’s dream. She is certainly not a likeable person, and is downright cruel to her loyal (and extremely quiet) husband Jose. However, Ms. Cotillard is such an accomplished actress that we somehow pull for Gabrielle to “snap out of it”.

The novel was adapted by Jacques Fieschi, Natalie Carter and director Garcia, and you’ll likely either be a fan or not, depending on your taste for old-fashioned melodrama. Despite numerous awkward moments, it’s beautifully photographed by cinematographer Christophe Beaucame. Additionally, the music plays a vital role here – both composer Daniel Pemberton’s use of the violin, and the duality of Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto that connects Gabrielle’s two worlds. You may say she’s a dreamer, but I hope she’s the only one.

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AN INCONVENIENT SEQUEL: TRUTH TO POWER (2017, doc)

July 30, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Eleven years ago, former Vice President Al Gore teamed up with filmmaker Davis Guggenheim to deliver a significant and startling wake-up call in the form of the documentary AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH. Not only was this the first introduction to the science of “global warming” for many, it also won an Oscar for Mr. Guggenheim and contributed to Mr. Gore winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

Co-directors Bonni Cohen (THE RAPE OF EUROPA) and Jon Shenk (LOST BOYS OF SUDAN) seem conflicted on the purpose of this sequel. Is this a frightening eye-opener on the climate-related changes over this past decade, or is it an attempt to return the spotlight to a faded rock star? The film provides evidence of both.

The film kicks off with a reminder of how powerful the original documentary was and how it started an avalanche of deniers … even re-playing Glenn Beck’s comparison of Al Gore to Joseph Goebbels as being weak sources of truth. Mr. Gore is on screen almost the entire run time. He is a self-described “recovering politician”, yet we see him acting very much like an esteemed politician: presenting on stage, shaking hands with the adoring crowds, posing for selfies, giving speeches, appearing on talk shows, and coming across as a highly-polished public figure reciting well-rehearsed lines.

As we would expect, the film is at its best when it focuses not on the celebrity and commitment of Mr. Gore, but rather on the statistics and documentation of these earth-changing developments. Some of the featured videos are surreal: the 2016 Greenland glaciers “exploding” due to warm temperatures, the flooded streets of Miami Beach from rising tides, and the aftermath of the Philippines typhoon are particularly impactful. There is even a connection made between the severe drought and the Syrian Civil War in creating an especially inhumane living environment. A Gore trip to Georgetown, Texas and his visit with its Republican mayor is effective in making the point that political platforms should have no bearing on our doing the right things for our planet. There simply aren’t enough of these moments.

A central focal point is the 2015 UN Climate Conference in Paris, and cameras are rolling when terrorism causes fear for the safety of 150 heads of state, and necessitates a delay in the proceedings. We are privy to some of the behind-the-scenes negotiations that include Solar City agreeing to “gift” technology to India in an attempt to have that country join the accord and reduce from 400 the number of planned new coal plants. Of course as we now know, the historic Paris Climate Accord has since been compromised with the pull out of the United States after the recent election.

Is the purpose of the film to keep climate change believers motivated, or are the filmmakers (and Gore) attempting to educate those who might still be won over? With so much attention to Mr. Gore’s ongoing efforts (and an attempt to solidify his legacy), it often plays like a pep talk rather than a fact-based documentary.

There is no questioning the man’s passion, though his screen presence over two hours is hampered by his reserved manner. He states clearly that he is “not confused about what the right thing to do is”, and even compares his mission to the Civil Rights movement. Gore labels the lack of global process as a “personal failure on my part”, while simultaneously claiming the Democracy crisis has affected the attention given to the climate crisis. His frequent proclamations that “we are close” seem to be in conflict with the many setbacks. Are we close? The film seems to offer little proof.

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ATOMIC BLONDE (2017)

July 30, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. David Leitch has taken the rare Hollywood career path of stuntman-to-director. His expertise in fight scenes is beyond reproach as evidenced by his limited work on JOHN WICK (2014), and in his helming this heavily promoted, style over substance summer action film masquerading as a spy thriller. Kurt Johnstad (300) adapted Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s graphic novel “The Coldest City”, and in collaboration with director Leitch and the ultra-talented Charlize Theron, has created some of the most brutal, bone-crunching and violent fight scenes ever seen on screen.

Ms. Theron stars as Lorraine, an MI6 agent whose life-sustaining nourishment is apparently derived from Stoli on the rocks and an endless supply of cigarettes. The opening scene features a naked Lorraine submerged in an ice cube bath seeking relief for her bruised and battered body. She then heads to an official debriefing by her supervisor (Toby Jones) and a CIA officer (John Goodman); they want details on what went wrong with her most recent mission. Those details come through flashbacks of Lorraine’s trip to Berlin to investigate the murder of a fellow agent and the stolen list of all agents. It’s 1989, and the Cold War concern is that the list falls into the hands of the KGB, immediately placing all agents and missions in peril.

With the recurring backdrop of President Reagan exhorting Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down that wall”, the film in no way employs the clever clandestine strategies of the TV series “The Americans”, or even slightly resembles international espionage classics like TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY or THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR. Instead, whatever plot lines or MacGuffins exist have one sole purpose: generate another fight scene for Lorraine.

Stairwells, kitchen utensils, a skateboard, water hoses, car keys and a corkscrew all have their moments (no, it’s not a Jackie Chan movie), as do a couple of car chase sequences. Ms. Theron is a physical marvel (she performed most of her own stunts) as she takes on numerous adversaries in various locations all while sporting more fashionable black & white outfits (with coordinated stilettos) than we can count. She has proven many times (MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, NORTH COUNTRY, MONSTER) that she is much more than a pretty face, and this is her most grueling role to date.

This is undoubtedly Charlize’s show, and supporting work is provided by an underutilized James McAvoy (fresh off of SPLIT) as the rebellious Berlin station agent, Eddie Marsan as a German Stasi known as Spyglass, James Faulkner as MI6 Chief, Roland Moller as the Soviet Bremovych, the always-cool Til Schweiger as the watchmaker, and Bill Skarsgard (Pennywise in the upcoming IT remake). Sofia Boutella plays the wonderfully named Delphine LaSalle, a French agent who, like most of the human race, is attracted to Ms. Theron/Lorraine.

Though it’s understandable we don’t get to see much of Berlin, the soundtrack continually reminds us that we are in 1989 thanks to music from such varied artists as David Bowie, Public Enemy, Nena, The Clash, Depeche Mode and A Flock of Seagulls. There is even a throwback clip from MTV making a crack about the ethics of sampling, and Cinematographer Jonathan Sela’s background in music videos works perfectly for the flash cut action segments.

A more intricate and full-bodied story tied to the international espionage of the Cold War could have elevated the film to a more elite status; however, it immediately becomes one of the top female-led action films and features some of the most impressive and fun to watch cinematic fight scenes ever. Next up for director Leitch is Deadpool 2, so we will soon find out if he can inject humor into his expert action.

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A GHOST STORY (2017)

July 20, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. We’ve not previously seen a movie like this latest from writer/director David Lowery. Detractors will likely roll their eyes and ask “and why would we?”, while those who find a connection here will pontificate endlessly on the existential meaning of life, love, loss and legacy. Polarized reactions to the film will lead to some colorful post-viewing discussions … exactly what would be expected from an artsy non-horror movie entitled A Ghost Story.

Yes, there is a ghost. However this ghost is neither friendly Casper nor angry spirit. Instead, for the vast majority of the run time, we see a white sheet covered Casey Affleck (at least we are told it’s him) standing in static melancholic repose. We do initially meet Affleck’s composer character in what appears to be a somewhat normal up-and-down relationship with his wife, played by Rooney Mara. In the midst of a passive-aggressive argument about whether to move from their somewhat dumpy suburban rental, Affleck’s character is killed in an automobile accident mere feet from their driveway. We next see him back in the house, draped in a bedsheet (one way to keep wardrobe costs under control), and watching his grief-stricken wife through blackened eye holes.

We come to understand that the ghost is confined to the home and time seems to bounce from present to future to past. The residents change, but the ghost doesn’t. Periodically the ghost flashes anger or some other act that disrupts the real world, but mostly he just stands and observes longingly.

A word of caution is in order. This is a deep cut, art house indie that features very little dialogue, almost no plot, and numerous extended fixed shots with no payoff for your anticipation. Oh, and it’s shot in the old fashioned almost square aspect ratio. There are no creepy clowns under the bed or in the storm drains, and there is an absence of cheap jump-scares (OK, there is one that is the director’s prank on the audience). This is more abstract experimental filmmaking than traditional horror, so choose your viewing partner accordingly.

Filmmaker Lowery previously collaborated with Affleck and Mara on the critically acclaimed 2013 Ain’t Then Bodies Saints, and this one was filmed in secret just after Lowery completed Pete’s Dragon. It takes a meditative approach to some of the issues we all ponder at times. Lines such as “We do what we can to endure”, and “You do what you can to make sure you’re still around after you’re gone” … these provide the clues when you begin to wonder what the film is trying to tell you. In fact, it isn’t telling you anything. It’s encouraging you to think. The film may lack a traditional narrative structure, but if taken with an open mind, it can generate some introspection that most movies wouldn’t even attempt to inspire.

In addition to Affleck and Mara, the small cast also includes Liz Cardenas Franke (the film’s producer) as the landlord, and singer-songwriter Will Oldham as a hipster philosopher/prognosticator who is given entirely too much screen time. Daniel Hart contributes an excellent use of music – especially considering the minimal dialogue and non-existent special effects. The film doesn’t solve the mysteries of the universe, but it does answer the question of whether Rooney Mara can eat an entire pie in one uninterrupted shot. Expect descriptions as disparate as: inexplicable, pretentious, boring, thought-provoking, and existential … whatever your reaction, you wouldn’t be wrong.

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