DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD (2020, doc)

January 6, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Hal Ashby’s 1971 cult classic HAROLD AND MAUDE takes a comical look at death, and in the process shows us the importance of living, and the jolt delivered by dying. Documentarian Kirsten Johnson (CAMERAPERSON, 2016) makes this a more personal project by involving her dad in a series of staged deaths for her film. Initially the purpose was to help him begin to deal with an end that could be coming soon, but it evolved into something altogether different.

Dick Johnson is an elderly psychiatrist. He’s a charming and lively man, boasting a nice sense of humor and a twinkle in his eye. His daughter Kristen is “a camera person”, and suggests to him that they make a film about him dying. He’s on board. Kristen then stages various “deaths” for her father. These scenes include getting crushed by a falling air-conditioner, getting hit by a car, taking a horrific fall down stairs, and a construction site mishap. The more we get to know Dick, the more we like him. We learn it’s been 30 years since he had a heart attack, and 7 years since his wife died. She suffered from Alzheimer’s for years before she passed. We learn he’s a Seventh Day Adventist, and loves chocolate fudge cake. My how he loves chocolate cake.

Initially gung-ho for his daughter’s idea, and fully supportive of the situations she puts him in for her art, Dick begins to show signs of forgetfulness and confusion. At times we have our doubts that he fully comprehends what’s happening – not just in the film, but in everyday life. The comical elements shift to wistfulness, as we are present when Dick has to shut down his practice, sell his car, and ultimately box up his belongings and move out of his beloved home. Kristen moves him to her one bedroom New York City apartment, which is right next door to that of the two fathers of her children.

In addition to the staged deaths, we also meet a stuntman who gets involved, and we are on set for the filming of Dick’s “Heaven” which includes chocolate and popcorn, and his “Last Supper” featuring, among others, Bruce Lee, Frida Kahlo, Farrah Fawcett, and Frederick Douglass. There is also a family trip to a beach in Lisbon, and a reunion with Dick’s college girlfriend in California. The strangest bit is the staged funeral, replete with Dick in a coffin, and friends offering tributes. We also celebrate Dick’s 86th birthday, and see many family pictures and home videos.

Leonardo da Vinci is quoted: “As a well spent day brings happy sleep, so life well used brings happy death.”

Watching Dick’s spirit fade along with his memory is anything but happy. His daughter Kristen tries to remain sensitive to his changing state, but the feeling we are left with is anything but happiness towards death. Her film is likely structured much differently than she originally intended, but has so much value for discussion with loved ones and a reminder of just how precious life is for those who appreciate it.

Now showing on Netflix

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GRIZZLY II: REVENGE (1983/2021)

January 6, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. The slate of movies I review each year leans heavily towards serious and dramatic material, but is there anything more serious than an 18 foot tall grizzly bear seeking revenge for the poaching of her cubs? And is there a better springboard to success for actors than the sequel to a cheesy land-based riff on JAWS? OK, I sense your skepticism. What if I told you that sequel featured three Oscar winners, and the original was one of the most profitable ROI films of the year? Starting to come around, aren’t you?

Well, before you get overly excited in anticipation of this film’s release, please allow me to explain … or come clean. This 1983 film has its own special place in cult film lore. Some even doubted its existence (or at least the actual title). But now, after all these years and rumors, the legend comes to life, and has not only been “completed”, but is getting a semblance of release. If you love schlock horror where nature-goes-awry, with the added bonus of ‘spot the actor’ (now almost 40 years older), then there is the possibility you are worthy of watching this … this … abomination (meant here as a term of endearment).

You should know that there are very few sightings of the enormous grizzly bear; although we do get an opening sequence with some quality camera work featuring grizzlies in the wild. Even though we don’t see much of the titular beast, she does dominate the story. The earliest sequence features three young campers ignoring bear warning signs. These three campers are why we are all here. A pre-“E/R” George Clooney (21 years old) sports a denim vest before climbing in a sleeping bag with a partially clothed 16 year old Laura Dern, who has somehow managed to complete the hike wearing sandals and whining the entire time. The third wheel is played by a 17 year old with hair hanging in his eyes and acne on his face. You’ll recognize him as Charlie Sheen, although here he looks very much like brother Emilio. If you show up for this trio, hold off on the potty break, because there’s an angry grizzly lurking.

There are other pieces to the story … and I use ‘pieces’ in a manner similar to what one sees in an intersection after a couple of cars collide. A group of drunk poachers roam the woods looking to collect grizzly gall bladders, which evidently have value on the black market. The Park Rangers are preparing for an upcoming rock concert where 100,000 attendees are expected. A concert promoter played by Louise Fletcher (an Oscar winner as Nurse Ratched in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, 1975) bullies the newest Park Ranger played by Steve Inwood (who also appeared in STAYING ALIVE that same year, reaching world class clunker status twice in 1983) into “the show must go on” despite the grizzly killings.

This was director Andre Szots’ second and final feature film as a director, though he did have a career as a producer. The husband and wife writing team of David Sheldon and Joan McCall ‘crafted’ the screenplay. He was also a co-writer on the original GRIZZLY (1976), while she appeared on screen in it. Continuing our game of ‘spot the actor’, we can’t help but notice Deborah Foreman as the lead Ranger’s wide-eyed daughter. Ms. Foreman was a very popular actor in the 1980’s, including a starring role in VALLEY GIRL (1983). Unfortunately her career never hit the heights many predicted, although she does have one of the best lines in this film when she proudly states her skill at working a phone – both dial and push-button! Fans of either the “Lord of the Rings” or “Indiana Jones” franchises will surely get a kick out of John Rhys-Davies as a lumberjack-American Indian, who is renowned for his expertise in hunting “the devil bear”. Other familiar faces include a young Timothy Spall (MR TURNER), Deborah Raffin (rumored to be the second choice for Sandy in GREASE), Ian McNiece (ACE VENTURA: WHEN NATURE CALLS, 1995), Dick Anthony Williams (a hard-working actor from the 1970’s until his death in 2012), Jack Starratt (actor in FIRST BLOOD, 1982, director of RACE WITH THE DEVIL, 1975), and Charles Cyphers, who played the Indians’ General Manager in MAJOR LEAGUE (1989).

The joy in seeing these folks in one place is compromised (to say the least) by the horrendous 1980’s pop music being performed by those on stage attired in just about any outrageous 80’s fashion you can recall. Initially comical, the musical acts quickly evolve into something stomach-churning to watch. The kindest description of the production quality is “low-budget”, but there is simply no term for the effects. A Darth Vader breathing sound is heard when the grizzly is near, a speeding Ranger jeep on a dirt path is used to create suspense (the same shot is used multiple times), the day-night inconsistencies could be their own drinking game, and fireworks and a forklift prove to be a bad mix with our grizzly. Finally, for reasons we never really understand, a US Senator is a guest at the concert, and these days a Senator would likely be considered a greater threat than an 18 foot grizzly. You’ve heard the adage, “so bad it’s good”, well this one is simply so bad it’s bad. William Girdler directed the original GRIZZLY in 1976, and he tragically died at age 30, just two years later.

Available On Demand January 8, 2021

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HERSELF (2020)

January 4, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. We are getting more films these days with stories about strong women, and it’s quite inspirational. This one is courtesy of director Phyllida Lloyd (THE IRON LADY 2011, MAMMA MIA! 2008) and co-writers Malcolm Campbell and Clare Dunne, the latter of whom also stars in the film. We’ve all seen the reports that domestic abuse has increased during the pandemic, so the film is timely, as well as disturbing to watch at times – and also informative, hopeful, and uplifting.

Sandra (Ms. Dunne) lives a dangerous home life in Ireland with her husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson) and their two daughters Molly (Molly McCann) and Emma (Ruby Rose O’Hara). The danger isn’t derived from a shady neighborhood or faulty home wiring, but rather the explosive temper of Gary, and his tendency to physically abuse his wife. One particular incident traumatizes the youngest daughter and pushes Sandra to take the kids and escape. What follows is a look at the bureaucratic and legal challenges faced by a woman in this situation, as well as the grit and determination of a mother who believes she and her kids deserve a better life.

State-sponsored housing consists of a motel where Sandra and her daughters are forced to use a back entrance so as not to inconvenience the paying customers. Sandra’s flashbacks and visions of being abused by the father of her children are never absent for long. The mandated drop-offs so dad can spend time with the kids go beyond awkward and are filled with a dread that only a parent can fully understand.

When red tape and policy offer little hope of an improved life, Sandra turns to Google and YouTube, and soon she is recruiting folks to help her build a home on the cheap. One of her part time jobs leads to a generous offer that kicks things into gear. Peggy (Harriet Walker) is a retired doctor who Sandra is contracted to clean house for – just as Sandra’s mother had done. Peggy offers some of her unused land, and next thing we know, Sandra is urging a local building contractor, Aido (Conleth Hill) to spearhead the effort. He’s initially reluctant to join the cause, but his heart is bigger than his tough-guy exterior leads us to believe.

Director Lloyd’s film serves up some clichés, and struggles to maintain a balance between a heart-warming story of a tenacious mother and commentary on a system that has no place for those so independent minded. However, the performance of Ms. Dunne is so strong and creates such an easy bond with viewers, that we find ourselves feeling defensive towards her during her legal and emotional battles, and happiness as her community comes together to build. A couple of twists/surprises prevent the film from ever devolving into heavy melodrama, and there is a clever use of music throughout. An early glimpse of a Lego house is a nice touch. Anyone so determined to dig out of a bad situation and re-boot their life, and the lives of their kids, deserves just what they are after … a better life.

Amazon Studios will release HERSELF in select theaters December 30th, 2020 and on Prime Video January 8th, 2021

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SOUL (2020)

December 30, 2020

Greetings again from the darkness. With their first 22 feature films, Pixar excelled at balancing the eye candy and action kids favor with the second level intellect needed to simultaneously keep adults entertained. As proof, one need only think of such classics as TOY STORY, CARS, and THE INCREDIBLES. Surprisingly, film number 23 is the first Pixar film aimed directly at adults. It’s a marvelous companion piece to the brilliant INSIDE OUT (2015), but be forewarned, there is simply nothing, or at least very little, for kids to latch onto.

The film is co-directed by 2 time Oscar winner Pete Docter (INSIDE OUT 2015, UP 2009) and Kemp Powers (the screenplay and stage production of ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI, 2020), and they were joined on the screenplay by Mike Jones. And yes, it’s a brilliant script to go along with the always stunning Pixar visuals and effects. Brace yourself for a metaphysical exploration of the meaning of life and finding one’s purpose. As we’ve come to expect on Pixar projects, the voice cast is deep and filled with well-known folks such as Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Angela Bassett, Questlove, Daveed Diggs, Wes Studi, and June Squibb. Leading the way is the dynamic duo of Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey.

Mr. Foxx plays Joe, a junior high band teacher still chasing his dream of performing jazz and experiencing the feeling that only music can provide … “the zone”. Instead, the school offers him a full-time teaching job, and his mother demands he seize the stability (and insurance) and give up his silly dream of jazz. As seen in the preview, shortly after an audition lands him his dream jazz gig, a freak accident occurs and Joe finds himself in “The Great Beyond”, where a conveyor belt takes those souls whose time has come to that giant bug zapper in the sky. Joe’s not willing to accept his plight and finagles his way into being a mentor for Soul 22 (Tina Fey) in “The Great Before” where unborn souls search for their “spark”. It’s all very existential.

After a look back at his life, Joe takes 22 to “The Hall of Everything”, which is the one segment in the film which felt underplayed … much could have been done with 22 looking for a reason to live. Instead, it’s a few great punchlines, including a Knicks gag that will surely play well among basketball fans. We learn of the fine line separating “lost souls” from those “in the zone”, and mostly we take in the banter between Joe and 22, as purpose and passion become the subjects of chatter.

As with most Pixar movies, multiple viewings are required to catch all the sight-gags, one-liners, and Easter eggs, however, the first viewing is like unwrapping a giant Christmas present. The opening Disney theme is hilariously played by a junior high school band, and the score is courtesy of Oscar winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (THE SOCIAL NETWORK, 2010). Director Docter claims Pixar good-luck charm John Ratzenberger makes a vocal appearance, but I didn’t catch it. The film leaves us with the message that the meaning of life is simply living life … and keep on jazzing.

Available on Disney+

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PIECES OF A WOMAN (2020)

December 29, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. It happens sometimes, but rarely. A single sequence in a film is so profound or unusual or artistic or affecting, that it alone makes the film worth watching. Such is the case with the labor-birth-midwife scene in this film from real life partners, Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo and writer Kata Weber. Much of it is an extended single continuous shot, and it occurs within the first half hour.

The only set up we get is that the husband, Sean (Shia LaBeouf) is on the construction crew building a new bridge, and that his wife Martha (Vanessa Kirby) is extremely pregnant on her final day of work before maternity leave. A strained relationship with Martha’s mother is evident as she buys the couple a minivan. At home, the couple seems excited about the upcoming arrival of their first baby. When her water breaks, they are initially upset that their midwife can’t make it for a home delivery, but soon enough, Eva (Molly Parker), shows up as a replacement and takes charge. The remarkable sequence is filmed in tight shots that add to the tension and come across as ultra-realistic as Ms. Kirby’s strenuous performance.

The rest of the film follows the differing ways the couple, especially Martha, deals with the crushing emotional pain and unfathomable grief that comes with losing a child. It’s the kind of tragedy that can tear apart a relationship and change, if not destroy, a person. Martha becomes isolated as she tries to make sense of something where logic doesn’t apply. Sean is unable to connect with her, but falls into her mother’s camp of seeking to avenge the pain. Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn plays Martha’s domineering mother, and she is determined to make the midwife pay through jail time.

The rest of the film can’t match that birth sequence for tension, but the cast is superb in capturing the various faces of grief. Ms. Kirby is a revelation and she immerses herself in the role – something frequent movie watchers will immediately recognize. Whether she’s huffing with labor pains, sniffing apples in a grocery store, or floating through days and nights in a state of numbness, we feel every bit of what she’s processing. LaBeouf handles the initial pain very well, but he’s let down by the script through the balance of the story. Ms. Burstyn and Ms. Kirby each get another chance to shine as they face off at a family dinner in Act 3. Supporting work comes from Benny Safdie (actor-director known for co-directing offbeat films with his brother Josh), Iliza Schlesinger as Martha’s sister, and Sarah Snook as the prosecuting attorney (and family member).

Scandal surrounds the project, not because of anything that happened during production, but instead due to the accusations Shia LaBeouf is facing from a former girlfriend. Separating the accusations from the performance is a choice each viewer will have to make on their own, and it can be noted that he, while a significant player in the story, is not the main focus. Chapter headings by month are used to assist us with knowing how much time has passed, and the under-construction bridge from the first scene acts as a metaphor in the film’s final scene as the new reality is faced. Despite being a tough watch at times, and having a first act that sets an unsustainable bar, there is a lot to admire about the film. Martin Scorsese is listed as an Executive Producer and 3-time Oscar winner Howard Shore delivers a nice score. Living with loss is never easy, and at times seems impossible.

In theaters December 30, 2020 and on Netflix January 7, 2021

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TWO WAYS HOME (2020)

December 29, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s a bit of a rough start. The armed robbery of a convenience store doesn’t come across as menacing or threatening, but rather almost comical as the burly dude retreats, leaving the ski-capped (not masked) woman behind to face the cops. The scene does however set the stage and background for that woman’s story. Kathy (Tanna Frederick) is sent to jail where she is diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. Transferred to a treatment center, Kathy is given medications for control, and released early.

Kathy seeks redemption and normalcy as she heads back to her family. The reception is lukewarm at best, and her now 12 year old daughter Cori (Riley Behr) outright rejects her. Cori has been raised by her father Junior (Joel West) and Kathy’s parents, and is now the ultimate overachieving adolescent who wants nothing to do with her ex-con mother. In the midst of Kathy’s homecoming, her beloved grandfather Walter (Tom Bower) has had a heart attack on his pig farm, and now the family is trying to have him certified as “not competent” so they can take over his land (a generational farm). Kathy is disgusted by this, and wants nothing more than to give her grandfather what he wants most … a chance to live out his final days on the same land where his father died.

With no shortage of awkward conversations or situations, Kathy struggles to acclimate back into her family and small Iowa hometown. The best and most poignant scenes are with Kathy and her grandfather, and with Kathy and Cori. Kathy relates to her grandfather, as he’s being labeled just as she has been. In his case, he carries the weight of old age, while she carries the stigma of mental illness. The conversations between Kathy and Cori are more intimate, as a mother and daughter try to reconnect.

Director Ron Vignone and writer Richard Schinnow do a nice job creating small town authenticity, and proving that family dysfunction is certainly not limited to big city life. Cinematographer Christopher C Pearson captures some nice shots of beautiful Iowa farm land, and mixes it with the often uncomfortable family moments. Veteran actor Tom Bower is a real standout here, and we ultimately wish he had more screen time. Ms. Frederick captures the essence of her character, and faces the challenges of those burdened with the mental illness stigma. We should appreciate the inclusion of Kathy encouraging her grandfather to write down his memories and experiences for future generations. It’s a valuable step that too few folks take.

Available on VOD beginning December 29, 2020

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WONDER WOMAN 1984

December 26, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Some of the key elements that make Wonder Woman appealing is that she’s smart, she’s nice, she’s dedicated to doing good, she’s grounded in her history, and her use of her powers makes sense (in a comic book kind of way). Most of that holds true in filmmaker Patty Jenkins’ sequel to her 2017 blockbuster WONDER WOMAN. So why did that one work so well, while this one falls short? It’s not an easy question to answer, though it could be as simple as having the wrong target.

Gal Gadot returns as Diana Prince, and this time she’s plopped into 1984 (the year, not the novel). This creates a cornucopia of opportunity for social commentary and satire from Ms. Jenkins and her co-writers Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham. After all, it was the era of atrocious popular music, outlandish fashion, and a relentless pursuit of greed by the “me” generation. The film pounces on each of these by using the return of Diana’s main squeeze, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), as a device for highlighting the absurdity of belly bags and pastel tank tops for men. In the first movie, the WWI pilot wakes up in Themyscira, and this time, he just kind of materializes in the year of GHOSTBUSTERS, shopping malls, and President Ronald Reagan. While this certainly qualifies as extreme culture shock, the parade of outfits and Steve’s wide-eyed tour through the city are over-the-top, even for their attempted comedic effect.

Over-the-top also describes the film’s two main villains. Pedro Pascal (“Game of Thrones”) plays TV hypester and con man Maxwell Lord. He’s a greedy, self-centered man willing to do anything to get “more”. Kristen Wiig is Barbara Minerva, a bumbling, forgettable klutz who works at the same museum as Diana. She simply wants to be cool like Diana and have people acknowledge her existence. Things shift quickly thanks to the Dreamstone sitting in Barbara’s in-box waiting for research. What follows is more than two hours of seeing the fallout of people having their wishes come true. If you’ve learned anything about human nature during this pandemic year, then you won’t be surprised at how people react to gaining power.

Maxwell Lord is not dissimilar to Lex Luthor in SUPERMAN (1978), as his goal is ultimate power and control – though to what end, he’s not sure. Barbara Minerva was never really power hungry, but a taste of it was much to her liking, and she transitions to The Cheetah for Wonder Woman’s biggest fight scene. There is also a message about what one sacrifices to have their wishes come true. This aspect of the film could be psychoanalyzed were one so inclined. Lord’s relationship with his son is convoluted, and the early Barbara is a mess … making their “sacrifices” a bit less obvious than that of Diana.

The opening sequence is the one this viewer most enjoyed. Spectacular camera work takes us to a competition on Themyscira, as a very young Diana (Lilly Aspell returns) goes against the grown warriors, while Antiope (Robin Wright) and Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) look on and teach hard life lessons. Not only do these actors return, but most of Ms. Jenkins’ WONDER WOMAN crew is back, including cinematographer Matthew Jensen. The changes include Film Editor Richard Pearson and Hans Zimmer provides the new score. Some of the dialogue is tough to take. As an example, Diana says “I don’t know what to think, Steve. I only hope I’m wrong.” And later, Steve explains, “Flying is easy. It’s only wind and air.” Dialogue like this makes us want to renounce our own wishes. It may be one film later than it should have been, but Ms. Jenkins does deliver a much-appreciated cameo at film’s end, and if nothing else, it leaves us wondering, ‘what would you give up for a wish?’

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NEWS OF THE WORLD (2020)

December 25, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Even in the midst of a pandemic, December is Oscar-qualifying time. And that means we get Tom Hanks’ latest movie. This time out, the two-time Oscar winner reunites with his CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013) director Paul Greengrass (three “Bourne” movies, and Oscar nominated for UNITED 93, 2006) for Hanks’ first ride into the western genre. Luke Davies (Oscar nominated for LION, 2016) adapted the screenplay from Paulette Jiles’ 2016 novel.

The beloved Mr. Hanks stars as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd. We know his full name because he proudly announces it at each stop of his news-reading route. That’s right, even in 1870, which is before television and radio and internet, a person could earn a living reading the news. OK, so it wasn’t the millions that national anchors make these days, as he was dependent on the audience dropping a coin or two in the tin cup. For this they were treated to Captain Kidd’s robust presentation of news and events (and some gossip) from around the nation … straight from the news clippings he collected during his travels.

On the trail one day, Captain Kidd comes across a horrific scene of violence, and a 10 year old girl with a shock of blonde hair. She only speaks Kiowa, but the found paperwork lists her name as Johanna (the first American film for Helena Zengel). It turns out, tragic events in her family’s home many years earlier left Johanna being raised by the Kiowa Indians. Captain Kidd is now on a mission to return her to her surviving relatives (an aunt and uncle), but there are at least three obstacles to his plan: it’s a rigorous trip of about 400 miles, the girl doesn’t want to go, and there remains much tension in the split among the post-war citizenry. So what we have here is a western road trip (trail ride) that’s a blend of TRUE GRIT (minus the witty banter) and THE SEARCHERS.

It should be noted that Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd has served in three wars, including the recently concluded Civil War. He may make his living wearing bifocals and reading newspapers, but Kidd is no nerd. He handles pressure quite naturally, as we witness in chase scene up a rocky hill. The resulting shootout not only creates the first bond between Kidd and Johanna, but also flashes the Captain’s calming influence. This is a soulful and principled Tom Hanks (as usual), but this time he’s riding a horse and his furrowed brow is working overtime.

The trip to Johanna’s home coincidentally takes Kidd very close to where he once lived – a place that holds his best and worst memories. As viewers we see what Captain Kidd and Johanna don’t. They are both headed back to a past they no longer belong to. Along the way, the two travelers cross paths with characters played by Elizabeth Marvel, Ray McKinnon, Mare Winningham, and the always great Bill Camp. There is nothing rushed about the story or these people. Fans of director Greengrass will be surprised to find an absence of his trademark rapid-cut action sequences, but he has delivered a sweeping epic with superb cinematography (Dariusz Wolski, “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise), expert editing (Oscar winner William Goldenberg, ARGO), and a terrific score (8-time Oscar nominee James Newton Howard). Mr. Hanks delivers yet another stellar performance (of course), and young Ms. Zengel’s assured performance likely means we will be treated to her work for years to come. It’s a quasi-western period piece that is plenty interesting to watch, yet lacks the memorable moments to justify multiple watches or a place among the genre’s best.

Opens December 25, 2020

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PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (2020)

December 23, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” The protagonist in writer-director Emerald Fennell’s (“Killing Eve”) feature film debut is a woman on a mission to avenge not just what happened to her friend, but also change the mentality of predatory men … one “nice guy” at a time. She is a #MeToo heat-seeking missile.

Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie, and when we first see her, she appears to be nearing blackout mode while drinking alone on a bench inside a bar. Most people have hobbies like crochet or golf. Cassie’s hobby, or maybe mission is a better word, is to lure men, with the appearance of a drunken easy score, and then scare them straight into respecting boundaries. She’s a non-violent vigilante (as opposed to Beatrix Kiddo) for morality and respect towards women.

As the film progresses, we pick up bits about what traumatized her to this extent. It turns out her best friend Nina was victimized by a group of men from their law school class. See, Cassie is the titular ‘promising young woman’ whose career dreams were dashed over what happened to her friend. Now, Cassie works in a coffee shop with a supportive and wise-cracking friend Gail (Laverne Cox, “Orange is the New Black”), who knows nothing of Cassie’s hobby … and neither do Cassie’s parents (Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown) who can’t help but wonder what happened to their bright, ambitious daughter, and why she still lives at home with them.

Cassie’s mission gets momentarily de-railed when former classmate Ryan (an excellent Bo Burnham, THE BIG SICK) pops in to the coffee shop and awkwardly proclaims his long-time distant crush on her. The two are clumsy and believable together, and their relationship has more ups and downs than a pogo stick. For most movies, this would be enough to hold our attention, but not for ambitious filmmaker Fennell who has much more to offer. There is a cleverness to the presentation with four specific segments: a friend who didn’t believe her (Alison Brie), the law school dean who didn’t want to ruin a boy’s future (Connie Britton), a regretful defense attorney who took the money (Alfred Molina), and a bachelor party that gathers those who make up her nightmare.

Ms. Fennell is also an actor (and has a cameo in this one), and it’s clear she has a real feel for putting actors in the best position to maximize a scene. Of course, Ms. Mulligan is an outstanding actor on her own, but the actors benefit from Ms. Fennell’s work. Other supporting work is provided by Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Molly Shannon, Max Greenfield, Chris Lowell, and Sam Richardson. The color palette is similar to an early Tim Burton movie, and in fact, Cassie’s home looks like a museum or possibly a middle-class Liberace setting.

There is a lot going on here, and some of it is quite uncomfortable – and sprinkled with dark humor in unexpected moments. Advice like “move on” and excuses like “we were kids” ring hollow to Cassie, who carries some guilt over what happened to Nina, and remains focused on attacking a system that enables inexcusable behavior. Ms. Mulligan embraces a character who possesses raw nerves and emotions she sometimes hides, while other times flashes in neon. This isn’t about a guy here or there who takes advantage, but rather a faulty system that protects these guys at the expense of victims. The ending is unusual and unexpected, and kudos to an exciting new filmmaker.

In theaters December 25, 2020

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THE MIDNIGHT SKY (2020)

December 22, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Screenwriter Mark L Smith has described his adaptation of Lily Brooks-Dalton’s book, “Good Morning, Midnight”, as a cross between the Oscar-winning GRAVITY (2013) his own THE REVENANT (2015, nominated for 12 Oscars). It’s a lofty comparison, and unfortunately, one that doesn’t prove out. Two-time Oscar winner George Clooney takes on the dual role of director and lead actor, and it’s his first movie role since 2016’s MONEY MONSTER.

Clooney plays Dr Augustine Lofthouse, a renowned scientist, and the only one staying behind as everyone else evacuates the Arctic Observatory after some unspecified “event” as left the earth uninhabitable. Augustine has a terminal disease (also unspecified) and evidently decides to stay behind because he likes drinking alone and self-administering blood transfusions. The drinking alone fun ends when he “finds” a stowaway young girl named Iris (Caiolinn Springall in her first film) and must assume the role of father-figure. To complicate matters, Iris doesn’t speak.

It’s 2049, and the film cuts between 3 storylines. While Augustine and Iris and working on a survival plan, we get flashbacks to a time when he was a younger scientist (played by Gregory Peck grandson Ethan Peck) and sacrificing a relationship with Jean (Sophie Rundle, “Peaky Blinders”) to focus on his career. The third story occurs simultaneously with Augustine and Iris, and involves Aether, a manned spacecraft on a years long mission to determine if Planet K23 can be inhabited by humans. The crew is commanded by Adewole (David Oyelowo, SELMA), and includes his partner, a pregnant Sully (Felicity Jones, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING), pilot Mitchell (Kyle Chandler, “Bloodline”), navigator Sanchez (Demian Bichir, THE HATEFUL EIGHT), and rookie astronaut Maya (Tiffany Boone, “Hunters”).

When Augustine learns of Aether and its route back to Earth, he takes it as his responsibility to inform them that they need a new plan. In order to do this, he and Iris must trek across the frozen Arctic tundra through a blinding snowstorm to reach the satellite equipment that will allow communication with Aether. This road trip through a whiteout allows for the best effects during the Augustine/Iris section. Aboard Aether, the crew is relatively non-descript, but there is a spacewalk segment that is quite something to watch thanks to the cinematography of Martin Ruhe. There is also a visually interesting segment featuring blood in zero gravity.

So what we have is a three-piece post-apocalyptic science-fiction space survival tale with a surprise twist that won’t surprise anyone. It’s likely meant as a warning about how we are destroying our planet, and global catastrophe may not easily be solved through space exploration. The film presents an interesting symmetry between the vast wasteland of Arctic winter vs the vastness of space … neither seem to have borders or boundaries, yet are fraught with dangers. If you pay much attention to the story, you’ll likely be disappointed; however, if you watch for the visuals, you should be fine.

Premieres on Netflix December 23, 2020

watch the trailer