PASSING (2021)

December 29, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. “We’re all passing for something or other.” Irene (played by Tessa Thompson) speaks the line that cuts to the quick of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, adapted here by first time writer-director Rebecca Hall. We are familiar with Ms. Hall’s many film projects as an actor, and her debut as a director shows immense promise. Ms. Larsen’s novel was inspired by her own life as a mixed-race woman.

It’s Irene whom we first see as ‘passing’ as white as she visits a retail store and takes tea at a fancy restaurant that most assuredly would not serve her if her light complexion and drawn-down hat were not hiding her true self. Cinematographer Eduard Grau has the camera track Irene’s darting eyes that are trained to notice potential trouble. Her gaze stops on a woman seated alone. There is a familiarity between the two and soon, Clare (Ruth Negga) has joined her long-ago childhood friend, Irene, at her table. While Irene “passes” when it’s necessary, she clearly identifies and lives as an African-American – married to Harlem doctor Brian (Andre Holland). Clare, on the other hand, is living a lie. She has permanently “passed” as a white woman, marrying John (Alexander Skarsgard).

The film’s best scene occurs when Clare takes Irene home and introduces her to husband John. His vile, racist nature immediately shows, creating a tense moment filled with excruciating and subtle exchanges of knowing glances between Clare and Irene. It’s a dangerous moment and we aren’t sure where it’s headed. What is clear is that a childhood bond may exist between the two ladies, but there is now a void that can never be filled. But what happens is that Clare finagles her way into the lives of Irene and Brian (and their kids). What we see is that Clare finds the ‘honest’ life quite enticing. Allowing herself to be who she is … dropping the façade … energizes her. Racial identity and sexuality are at stake here, and so are class and culture.

Bill Camp plays a pompous writer named Hugh who always seems to be hanging around the same parties and events as Irene. One of the best lines of the film occurs after Bill asks someone why they are hanging around. The answer is brief and insightful, and cuts to the quick. It’s a strong debut film from director Hall. It has a dreamlike look and excellent performances from the two leading ladies. The grey area in life is teased, and we do wish the dive had been a bit deeper on Irene and Clare, but that ending is one that will stun you – even if you’re expecting it.

Streaming on Netflix

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THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH (2021)

December 24, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. The confounding part about screen adaptions of great and familiar literary works is that we have each already formed our mental images of characters and setting. Adapting Shakespeare’s 400 year old play is Joel Coen (4 time Oscar winner, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN), and it’s also his first time to fly solo as director without his brother Ethan. Filmed in black and white on a sound stage, this production may lack the frills we’ve come to expect in modern times, yet while its stark sets recall German Expressionism, the film still manage to deliver memorable visuals.

Denzel Washington (2 time Oscar winner, TRAINING DAY, GLORY) stars as Macbeth, while Mr. Coen’s wife, Frances McDormand (4 time Oscar winner, NOMADLAND) is a perfect fit as the scheming Lady Macbeth. The absolute best and creepiest sequences are thanks to terrific work from stage actor Kathryn Hunter, who plays not one witch, but rather the trio (plus, in true Shakespearian fashion, a fourth character later). Ms. Hunter’s work is a highlight as she contorts her body and rings out prophecy with an exceedingly disturbing voice. She is fantastic. It’s the witches’ prophecy that Macbeth will become King of Scotland that sets into action a chain of events familiar to most of us.

The reasons this didn’t work as well for me as it did for others include Denzel’s extremely low-key performance in the first half, and more crucially, the film lacks that unbridled lust for power that so attracts me to this particular story. It struck me more as a story of a disgruntled couple than the timeless themes of corruption and lust for power that Shakespeare so expertly crafted. Denzel’s performance does come alive in the second half and he’s quite something to watch. However, it’s Ms. McDormand who nails the Lady Macbeth role and ensures our attention doesn’t drift. Although obvious, it must be noted that these two renowned actors are a bit old for the roles, but interesting enough, this elements adds a different perspective to the characters’ ambitions.

Supporting performances include Brendan Gleeson (is he ever not a standout?) as the ill-fated King Duncan, and Harry Melling as Malcolm and Matt Helm as Donalbain, Duncan’s two sons. Corey Hawkins plays Macduff, Bertie Carvel is Banquo, and Stephen Root is the scene-stealing (and comic relief) Porter. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel treats us to some creative shots and angles … and plenty of birds. But of course, it’s Denzel and McDormand who will make or break this for you.

Director Coen does include the familiar lines: “Something wicked this way comes” inspired writer Ray Bradbury, Lady Macbeth’s “out, damned spot” still packs a punch, while Macbeth’s “a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” remains my personal favorite. With the stark sets, Coen serves up a shadowy presentation – or is it a presentation of shadows? It’s a blend of stage and screen, yet never fully both. Despite some of my displeasures and the long-lasting curse, overall it’s a welcome version of “the Scottish play” … although I still prefer reading The Bard’s prose.

Opening in theaters on December 25, 2021 and streaming on AppleTV+ on January 14, 2022

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LICORICE PIZZA (2021)

December 23, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. The only honest way for me to begin is to simply admit that I adore this movie. In fact, I may love it as much as writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson loved making it. The setting is 1970’s San Fernando Valley, the area where the director was raised, and it’s such a caring tribute and sweet story (while also being exciting and nostalgic) that’s it’s tempting to stop writing and just encourage everyone to watch it. My only regret is that for those who weren’t around during this time period, some of the attention to detail and meticulous filmmaking won’t strike the same chord as it will for the rest of us.

Gary Valentine is played by first time actor Cooper Hoffman, who also happens to be the son of the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman (Oscar winner, CAPOTE). The elder Hoffman gave some of his best performances in PT Anderson movies, so it’s only fitting that the son explodes onto the scene under his tutelage. The character is loosely based on Gary Goetzman, who was a teenage waterbed entrepreneur, musician, and actor, and who is now a successful film and TV producer. In this story, Gary is a 15 year old actor and hustler – the kind of hustler always looking for the next big thing, whether it be the waterbed craze, or the opening of a pinball parlor. Young Hoffman plays him with an advanced confidence and ever-ready smile that puts people at ease.

On school picture day, Gary strikes up a conversation with photographer assistant Alana Kane (another first time actor, Alana Haim). She’s 10 years older than Gary, but is smitten by his confidence and conversation skills. You may find it weird that the two become friends. That’s OK, because even Alana thinks it’s weird. In fact, they spend most of the movie acting like they aren’t attracted to each other. Now you may find the situation off-putting, but I assure you it’s handled with grace and care. They make a dynamic duo, with Gary being advanced for his age, while Alana is a bit stunted – or at least, grasping to find herself.

The Gary and Alana story is the heart of the film, yet Anderson injects so many vignettes or additional pieces that there is no time to chill or even think about what we are watching. The brilliance is in the small touches … but also the outrageous moments, of which none are better than Bradley Cooper’s hyped up role as hairdresser-turned-Producer Jon Peters. His couple of scenes with Gary and Alana are some of the funniest I’ve seen all year. And if that’s not enough, we watch in awe as two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn charms Alana as actor Jack Holden (clearly a poke at Oscar winner William Holden) at the Tail o’ the Cock restaurant. These scenes are crafted as observations on the 70’s, but also clever comedy.

Anderson has packed his cast with recognizable talent. Tom Waits and Christine Ebersole are particularly effective in short scenes, she as real life agent Lucy Doolittle. Actor-director Benny Safdie shows up as local politician Joel Wachs, and Joseph Cross as his “friend”. John Michael Higgins has a cringe-inducing and politically incorrect role as the owner of an Asian restaurant, and the number of Hollywood bloodlines represented here is too great to count: Sasha and Destry Allen Spielberg, Tim Conway Jr, George DiCaprio (Leo’s dad), and Ray Nicholson (Jack’s boy). Maya Rudolph has a scene, Mary Elizabeth Ellis plays Gary’s mother, and John C Reilly briefly appears as Herman Munster. On top of all that, Alana Haim’s real life sisters and parents play her family. If you aren’t familiar, the three Haim sisters make up the well-known band HAIM, and have had videos directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.

Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood has become Anderson’s go-to composer, and his work here dazzles as it maintains the balance between drama and comedy. Beyond Greenwood’s score is the complementary soundtrack featuring the perfect selection of period tunes. Of course, given the time period, we get references of Richard Nixon, DEEP THROAT, and gas lines due to gas shortages, but Anderson never lets the down time overtake the fun. Director Anderson has 8 Oscar nominations, but no wins despite such extraordinary work as PHANTOM THREAD (2017), THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007), MAGNOLIA (1999), and others. It’s a shame this masterpiece has been released in the same year as THE POWER OF THE DOG, which will likely keep Anderson out of the winner’s circle yet again. Should you doubt the high level of this film, you’ll likely find yourself thinking this is Gary’s story while you are watching; however, once you have time to absorb what you’ve seen, you’ll realize this is Alana’s coming-of-age story. This is truly remarkable filmmaking and extraordinary film debuts from Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim.

Opens in theaters on December 24, 2021

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THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS (2021)

December 21, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. One could view being number four in a trilogy as similar to being the ‘third wheel’ on a date. Or one could view it as a new beginning, with a familiar foundation. Your way of viewing will likely depend on whether you choose the red pill or the blue one. This time out, it’s only writer-director Lana Wachowski, without her sister Lilly. Their groundbreaking first film in the series hit screens in 1999, and it’s been 18 years since the last. Lana co-wrote this script with David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon.

There is a stunning opening action sequence that is so well done, most will feel like it alone is worth the price of a ticket. But it’s another of the early scenes that really caught my attention and had me laugh out loud and applaud the audacity. Keanu Reeves stars (again) as Thomas Anderson, a renowned game developer best known for his award-winning games (actually a trilogy) ‘The Matrix’ from 20 years ago. His work on a new game called ‘Binary’ is interrupted when he’s summoned to the office of his boss played by Jonathan Groff. Anderson is informed that Warner Brothers, their corporate owner, is not interested in his new game, but instead demands another game in ‘The Matrix’ series. This is either self-parody or Lana’s passive-aggressive revenge, either of which is a bit humorous.

Anderson regularly battles the blurring lines of reality and sees a psychiatrist (Neil Patrick Harris) who prescribes blue (of course) pills to help the patient deal with daily life. There is no way I’m going into the story lines that are tossed around here, but there will be fans who are happy and fans who aren’t. In fact, this one teases with so many elements that are left hanging, we aren’t sure whether Lana is setting the stage for more to come or merely having fun stirring the pot.

What does matter is that Neo and Trinity get the shot at a legitimate relationship/romance. The return of Carrie-Ann Moss is treated with all due respect. She shows off her acting skills, which, let’s face it, are far superior to the lead actor here. Together they make an interesting couple and we pull for things to work out. Jada Pinkett Smith returns as Niobe, and some new characters are introduced as well. In addition to Jonathan Groff and Neil Patrick Harris, the most intriguing of these is Jessica Henwick as Bugs (like Bunny). The newly imagined Morpheus is played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Priyanka Chopra Jonas scores a couple of scenes as Sati. Oh, and the answer is a definitive yes – we do miss Hugo Weaving and Laurence Fishburne (despite some of Lana’s creativity).

Neo and Trinity and special effects are the real draw for the series, and though this one is littered with self-parody, one of the most disappointing elements comes in the fight scenes which fall short of expectations. While I enjoyed the multiple story lines, even the partial bits, it’s the big finale action sequence that had me convinced the shark had officially been jumped. It’s drawn out far too long and repetitive at times, and with the 2 and a half hour run time, you have earned the right to question “The One”.

Opening in theaters and on HBO Max on December 22, 2021

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THE TENDER BAR (2021)

December 21, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and journalist JR Moehringer published his memoir in 2005. Fortunately for him, it led to his being in high demand to pen the memoirs of others. Unfortunately for us, it also led to George Clooney directing a mostly listless movie version. Adapted by Oscar-winning screenwriter William Monahan (THE DEPARTED, 2006), the film does offer a surprisingly interesting performance from Ben Affleck, while also failing to capitalize on other elements that could have provided a boost.

Opening with Golden Earring’s “Radar Love” blasting over the speakers, this is the story of JR – from his childhood through young adulthood. Young JR (the acting debut of Daniel Ranieri) is being raised by his resourceful single mom (Lily Rabe, ALL GOOD THINGS, 2010). Financial hardships force them from the city, back to the Long Island home of JR’s grumpy grandfather (Christopher Lloyd). Although his mother is a bit down at having to move back home, young JR embraces the slew of family members who use the house as a congregating spot. He’s also taken under the wing of Uncle Charlie (2 time Oscar winner Ben Affleck), who runs the neighborhood bar called The Dickens.

Uncle Charlie becomes JR’s adult male role model, and he passes along his love of reading to the boy. It’s this that inspires JR to dream of becoming a writer – a dream that doesn’t necessarily conflict with his mother’s dream for him to attend Yale. Other life lessons include cancer, bowling, and living with regular disappointment courtesy of JR’s absentee dad, a radio DJ referred to by the family as ‘The Voice’ (Max Martini, the “Fifty Shades” movies). In addition to Uncle Charlie’s ever-present cigarette, adult beverage, and book of the day, are the regulars at the bar played by Max Casella, Michael Braun, and Matthew Delamater. Regrettably, these guys rarely offer anything outside of well-placed one-liners. JR is surrounded by folks who say they will always be there for him. And they mean they will always be there. They aren’t going anywhere. Dreams and ambition don’t exist, except for JR’s mother – for her son, not for herself.

The first half of the movie is significantly more interesting and entertaining than the second. Once Tye Sheridan (MUD, 2012) takes over the role of JR, we immediately miss the bright eyes and eager spirit of young Daniel Ranieri. The realities of getting older set in as JR heads to Yale (class of ’86). As JR fumbles through a romantic relationship with classmate Sidney (Brianna Middleton), he’s little more than a typically clueless young man blind to realities of his situation. JR’s post-college stint at the New York Times delivers very little that interests us … heck, we aren’t even sure JR is interested in the job.

I rarely find Ben Affleck’s performance to be the best thing about a movie, but he is excellent here, following yet another terrific performance in THE WAY BACK (2020). Growing up, we all have role models. Affleck’s Uncle Charlie is one of those well-meaning adults who seemed larger than life when we were young. His endless advice can be categorized as some good, some not so good – a combination which renders most of it meaningless. But instilling a love of reading and learning is one of the most important traits one can pass along to a youngster. The movie’s issues aren’t with that message, but rather with the bland storytelling. The recurring gags of ‘what does JR stand for?’ and ‘where’s my 30 bucks?’ are just the most obvious misguided attempts at cuteness.

Opening in theaters December 22, 2021

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SING 2 (2021, animation)

December 21, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. When an animated movie for kids banks over $600 million at the box office, we wouldn’t expect 5 years to pass before the sequel appears. But that’s exactly what has occurred with writer-director Garth Jennings’ follow-up to his hugely popular 2016 original featuring a troupe of anthropomorphic animals singing and dancing. This franchise doesn’t belong to Pixar or Disney, but rather Illumination, the studio behind the DESPICABLE ME films.

As one would expect, the sequel includes a return of the favorite characters (and voices), including koala Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey), mama pig Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), rockin’ porcupine Ash (Scarlett Johansson), shy elephant Meena (Tori Kelly), and sensitive gorilla Johnny (Taron Egerton). The stakes are higher for our warbling friends this time. The film opens with our furry friends performing an “Alice in Wonderland” production that features the Prince song, “Let’s Go Crazy”. Additionally, our retinas are scorched with every color known to mankind, reminding us of the land Oz … fitting because song #2 is Elton John’s “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road”. The latter works because Buster has just been informed by talent scout Suki (Chelsea Peretti) that his team is ‘cute’, but “not good enough”. See, Buster’s dream is to introduce the act on a global scale.

Most of the rest of the movie involves: Buster dodging threats from evil tycoon Mr. Crystal (Bobby Cannavale). Crystal is a wolf (of course) and is a powerful presence in a Las Vegas-style city built for entertainment. The other key element here is Buster’s promise to Crystal to deliver Clay Callaway (U2’s Bono) to the new production. Callaway, a lion, has been a reclusive rock star ever since a personal tragedy robbed him of his desire to participate in society. The bonding between Ash and Callaway is probably the best part of the story, and this occurs after Ash (Ms. Johansson) makes her point about equal pay (imitating real life) just after jamming to a Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs’ song.

In a move that makes little sense, Mr. Jennings has crafted a more complex story than what we saw in the first movie. This one will be difficult for many kids to follow, and involves the power and ego of Crystal, as well as nepotism with his entitled daughter (voiced beautifully by Halsey). But why complicate something that doesn’t need to be more complicated?  Most kids just want to watch the animals on stage, singing and dancing and doing goofy things. The sci-fi stage production “Out of this World” finds Meena teamed with a preening partner voiced by Eric Andre, while she dreams of connecting with the ice cream elephant voiced by Pharell Williams. Ash and Callaway are at the climax of the show with a version of Bono’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. Also included are many familiar tunes by such artists as Taylor Swift, Shawn Mendes, Billie Eilish, and The Weeknd. Many life lessons are served up here, including the importance of following your dream, but at one hour and fifty-two minutes, it’s easily 20 to 25 minutes longer than most kids will likely sit. While we can admire Mr. Jennings’ desire to deliver a sequel with value, we do question the wisdom in revising the template.

Opens in theaters on December 22, 2021

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PEBBLES (2021, India)

December 21, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Movies don’t get the credit they deserve for opening our eyes to other cultures and providing a snapshot into the lives of others … lives often unimaginable to us. Another aspect of World Cinema is that it serves as a reminder that people are people all over the globe. Dreams and disappointments are simply a part of the human existence. Often we recognize more similarities than we previously thought. Such is the case with the debut feature film from writer-director P.S. Vinothraj. This is India’s official submission for the Foreign Language Academy Award.

Ganapathy (played by Karuththadaiyann) marches purposefully through the village until he finds his son, Velu (Chellapandi), in the school room. The abrasive father brazenly inquires if the boy prefers him or his mother. It’s not a question the young boy dares answer. As the two begin their journey, it’s clear the man is angry, annoyed, abusive, and we soon learn, alcoholic. He seems ready to burst with pent-up energy and emotion. His goal is to travel to another village and bring back his wife, who returned to her family … and his demeanor leaves little doubt as to why.

The trip involves a bus ride and long walk on the sunbaked dirt trail through the rocky and mountainous desert. The father doesn’t so much walk as stomp, while the small boy follows behind in hopes of minimizing the abuse. Of course, as kids often do, Velu finds his ways to rebel, despite the risk of another slap upside the head.

With only minimal dialogue, director Vinothraj serves up visual storytelling at its finest. The filmmaker is obsessed with details … right down to minutiae. The camera sometimes lingers as if to force us to go deeper than merely noticing something – a woman loading water jugs on a bus, a family catching-prepping-cooking rats for consumption, or a young boy’s collection of the smooth rocks (pebbles) he tucks into his cheek to generate saliva. The remarkable, extended closing shot of women painstakingly filling bottles with precious water is culmination of what we’ve just watched – a slice of life demonstrating how life is complex even in the most remote areas of India, and yet no dissimilar to what we experience.

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THE LOST DAUGHTER (2021)

December 18, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. There are so many things that go unspoken about parenting, and first time writer-director Maggie Gyllenhaal specifically focuses her lens on the pressures of motherhood, by adapting the 2006 novel from the anonymous and talented and mysterious Italian writer Elena Ferrante. Of course, we are all aware of Ms. Gyllenhaal’s fine work as an actor, yet it’s almost beyond belief that this is her debut as a feature film director. The source material is strong, but Ms. Gyllenhaal, along with a terrific performance from Olivia Colman (Oscar winner, THE FAVOURITE, 2018), turn a coastline vacation into a mesmerizing psychological case study.

Ms. Colman proves yet again what a fine and versatile actor she is. Here she plays Leda, a divorced professor on solo holiday on a picturesque Greek island, staying in a refurbished lighthouse tended by longtime caretaker Lyle (Ed Harris). Leda is packing a satchel full of books and academia work, and is a bit perturbed when her isolated beach time is suddenly interrupted by a large and noisy family of vacationers from Queens. Being an observant loner, Leda eyes young mother Nina (Dakota Johnson) who is struggling with her daughter, as well as her husband and other family members. This triggers memories in Leda that are handled via flashbacks with a terrific Jessie Buckley (I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS, 2020) as young Leda, stressed out wife and mother to two daughters. She longs for her own space.

At face value, this appears to be a movie about a woman annoyed that she can’t just enjoy a quiet holiday on the sandy beach as she reads her books. However, there are so many layers to the story and to Leda, that as viewers, we must remain on high alert to pick up all the queues and subtleties. Watching Nina with her daughter and husband sends Leda deep into her past … a past that still haunts her to this day. At the same time, while gazing at Leda, Nina can’t help but wonder if she is looking at her own future self.

Much of what we see (past and present) reinforces the isolation and frustration felt by so many mothers. It has nothing to do with loving one’s kids, but rather maintaining one’s sanity and self-being. There are a few key moments, including one that creates tension between Leda and the vacationing family, and another that immediately connects the two. Leda’s past includes steps that would be considered taboo for any wife and mother, and the symmetry of her past and Nina’s present are striking.

Peter Sarsgaard (director Gyllenhaal’s real life husband) has a supporting role in the flashbacks, while Dagmara Dominczyk plays a critical role as Callie, part of Nina’s large family. Bonus points are won with a Leonard Cohen reference (that may or may not be true), and also playing key roles here are a missing doll (connecting Leda’s past and present) and the proper way to peel an orange. Cinematographer Helene Louvart works wonders balancing the beautiful setting with the not-always-beautiful actions of the characters. Especially potent here is the performance of Olivia Colman, who proves she can play most any role. It’s also remarkable what first time director Maggie Gyllenhaal has accomplished here. This is a multi-layered, nuanced look at how relentless parenting can often feel overwhelming and may even lead to feelings of guilt later in life. It’s rare to see such a raw look at the emotions behind what is often referred to as the joy of motherhood. The film leaves little doubt that the always-dependable actor Maggie Gyllenhaal is now one of the most interesting new filmmakers on the scene.

In select theaters on December 17, 2021 and on Netflix beginning December 31, 2021

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DRIVE MY CAR (2021, Japan)

December 18, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. If you are a fan of little films that seem quiet on the surface but deep down have jarring tremors of emotions, then this 3 hour art-house gem from Japanese writer-director Ryusuke Hamaguchi is a must-see. The director, along with co-writer Takamasa Oe, adapted the script from the short story by Haruki Murakami, part of his “Men Without Women” collection. The story revolves around Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya”.

In what may be the longest prologue in cinematic history, the opening credits finally roll about 35-40 minutes in. But that first segment is absolutely terrific. Yusuke Kafuku (played by Hidetoshi Nishijima) is a stage actor and director married to playwright and TV series writer Oto (Reika Kirishima). Their long relationship is bound by their love for each other despite the loss of a child many years earlier. Oh yes, there is one thing. Oto’s creative juices flow best during and after sex. The intimate moments are filled with story ideas that she bounces off her partner. These conversations may continue over meals or during a car ride, but they always begin during the throes of passion.

Husband Kafuku has come to accept these terms, and beyond that, he’s learned that Oto’s infidelities are a continuing of her creative process. Because of this, he says nothing when walking in at a most inopportune time – Oto is ‘creating’ while in the arms of rising star Koji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada). Kafuku elects to remain silent on the issue and allow Oto to have her way. Just when it seems the married couple might address the unspoken, an unexpected tragedy strikes. Each scene to this point has been meticulously crafted and acted. We know these people and feel the connections.

Flash forward two years, and Kafuku has been contracted by a Hiroshima theater group to direct a production of the ‘Vanya’ play for which he’s well known for his acting. He chooses not to cast himself due to the stress the role puts on him … one that forces the actor to face ‘the real you’ and the missed opportunities in life. Instead he puts together a multi-cultural, multi-language cast, including one actor who speaks only Korean sign language. And yes, the actor he chooses to play his Vanya role is Koji, the same actor he previously witnessed with his wife.

Koji has been a lost soul the past couple of years, and he claims it’s Oto who brought him and Kafuku together. A key element here is that Kafuku’s contract with the theater group requires him to accept Misaki (Toko Miura) as the chauffeur of his beloved, always spotless red Saab. During the hour long drives, Kafuku recites his familiar lines of dialogue in conjunction with a recorded tape of Oto reading opposite. It’s his way of keeping her close, yet this also assists with the warming of the relationship between him and his driver Misaki. Both are stoic individuals who keep their emotions hidden under a mask of self-control. It’s fascinating to see the bond slowly develop.

It’s actually Misaki’s backstory that means the most here. It’s a reminder to Kafuku (and us) that every person’s life has a certain complexity that we likely have no window into. The building of this bond actually begins a mutual healing of personal pain previously held inside. It’s also a stark reminder of the difference between these characters and many Americans who barely delay in laying bare their soul on social media. The play’s cast varies in age and background and language, but their collaboration, as well as the connectivity between Kafuku and Misaki are the central theme here. This may be best exemplified by the large video screen above the stage presentation, where the subtitles are displayed in multiple languages. A brilliant touch to an excellent film.

Currently playing in a limited theatrical release.

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NIGHTMARE ALLEY (2021)

December 17, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Fans of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro anxiously await his new projects knowing full well that each will have a stylish atmosphere, a certain fantastical creepiness, and characters a bit outside the norm (whatever normal is these days). Beyond that, the mystique derives from whatever new approach the extraordinarily talented filmmaker will surprise us with this time. For his first follow-up to his Oscar winning THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017), del Toro and co-writer Kim Morgan have adapted the 1947 cult noir classic by director Edmund Goulding (starring Tyrone Power), which itself was adapted from William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel.

Bradley Cooper (an 8 time Oscar nominee) stars as Stan Carlisle in what is a terrific opening sequence. We witness Stan leaving his past in ashes, then catching the bus out of town, until he steps off and follows a dwarf into the heart of a carnival where sideshows and freaks are the attraction. Through this progression, Stan utters nary a word for quite an extended period. Soon enough, Stan has become part of the fabric of the carnival, thanks to Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe) giving him a job, and mentalist Zeena (Toni Collette) giving him more than that. Stan is a quick study and takes in Clem’s history of “the geek”, and more importantly, he absorbs all secrets and the code from the telepathy show Zeena and her alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn) constructed. They not only pass along their trade secrets, but also a warning to avoid “spook shows”, which involves bringing up the dead for audience members.

Stan takes to the con quite naturally, and soon he is teaming with ‘electric girl’ Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara) to fine-tune their own psychic shows. Their relationship grows and within a few years, the two are performing at swanky hotels for high-society audience. It’s at this point where the movie transitions abruptly from the raunchy carnival setting with tattered tent flaps, floors of hay, and freaks and gadgets, to stunningly sleek Art Deco, fancy dress, and fancier words. One evening, Stan battles wits with an audience member, and his life path is altered again. Dr. Lilith Ritter (Oscar winner Cate Blanchett) is a psychologist who stays a step ahead of Stan, though he never realizes she has drawn him into her scheme, leading him to believe they are working together.

For those who have not seen the 1947 film, you won’t know that the central idea that folks need to believe in something is minimized, while Cooper’s differing approach to the role will not matter. However, for fans of the earlier film, it seems clear his intentions are less sinister, and he merely views his new skill as a path to wealth. Additionally, his aversion to alcohol too obviously foretells a role in his ultimate downfall. Ms. Blanchett relishes her role as a most intelligent noir femme fatale, and at times, simply overpowers Cooper in their scenes … although these scenes are gorgeous. This cast is absurdly talented and deep, and also includes Richard Jenkins, (Oscar winner) Mary Steenburgen, Holt McCallany, Clifton Collins Jr, Tim Blake Nelson, Jim Beaver, Mark Povinelli, Ron Perlman, and Peter MacNeil. Mr. Cooper and Ms. Blanchett are the featured performers, although my preference would have been more Dafoe and Collette.

Perhaps the real stars of the film are the technical team members: Production Designer Tamara Deverell, Art Director Brandt Gordon, Set Director Shane Vileau, and Costume Designer Luis Sequeira. In fact, one of Ms. Blanchett’s dresses is designed cleverly for one scene which reveals something from Lilith’s past. It’s rare for a film to offer two such contrasting and brilliant looks as what we see here with the carnival in the first half, and the Art Deco of the second. Nathan Johnson’s music is a good fit, especially for the first half.

Surprisingly, it seems as filmmaker del Toro has softened the edges of the characters and story for a more accessible film, though it still features less-than-admirable human beings. It lacks the final packaging regarding the reason the pieces are all related, and we never experience the nerve-jarring intensity of a true noir, though that final scene with Cooper and Tim Blake Nelson is stellar. The director seems to love the shadowy look and feel of the carnival and characters, and not so much the glossy bits of the second half. Still, how good is a filmmaker when one that is not his best work, is still at a level many filmmakers can only dream of? The letdown is like the “geek” job … it’s only temporary.

Opening in theaters on December 17, 2021

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