April 27, 2023

Greetings again from the darkness. If you have ever wondered what it might look like if Quentin Tarantino consulted on a modernized Pakistani version of Jane Austen … well, writer-director Nida Manzoor shows us (with no actual assistance from QT), including stylized martial arts, class warfare, and an obsession with a stuntwoman career. It’s Ms. Manzoor’s first feature film (she created the TV series “We are Lady Parts”) and she presents an extremely creative film with a balance of silly and dark themes that proves immensely entertaining.

Relative newcomer Priya Kansara stars as Ria, a private school student highly determined to achieve her goal of becoming a working stuntwoman. She remains laser-focused on this despite her teacher and parents laughing off such nonsense and re-directing her towards becoming a doctor. Ria also adores her older sister Lena (Rita Arya), although worried about her since she recently dropped out of art school and seems to be rudderless in life.

Things change quickly for everyone once rich mama’s boy/doctor Salim (Akshay Khanna) begins courting Lena. Ria senses things aren’t right with the relationship and is also convinced that Lena should resume her dreams of being artist, rather than being pursued by the handsome, rich, too-good-to-be-true suitor. Ria and her best friends Clara (Seraphina Beh) and Alba (Ella Bruccoleri) scheme to undercut the relationship, but they are no match for Salim’s mother (a terrific Nimra Bucha), who sports the best evil Grinch grin you’ve ever seen.

Director Manzoor divides the film into five chapters: A tale of two sisters, EID Soiree, Operation Wife Hunter, Assault on Shah mansion, and The Wedding. Each chapter offers comedy and action, and a matching of Ria’s wits and instincts against the plans and beliefs of others. Ms. Kansara impresses as an upstart female Jackie Chan with superior acting chops. She executes the physical martial arts sequences beautifully, yet also shows promise in the quieter, more intimate moments when emoting and dialogue matter. She is certainly one to watch … as is filmmaker Nida Manzoor. Anyone who can entertain at this level deserves the opportunity to do so as frequently as possible.

Opening in theaters on April 28, 2023


R.M.N. (2023)

April 27, 2023

Greetings again from the darkness. Welcome to ‘Hypocriteville”. Or the town of Bigotry. Or Xenophobia City. Regardless how vile each of these labels might be, they each fit in the Transylvania community at the heart of writer-director Christian Mungiu’s latest film. Of course, as with most derogatory labels, the accused would never admit the shoe fits, and paraphrasing Shakespeare, would likely protest too much. Mungiu’s brilliant 2007 Palme d’Or winner 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS was inexplicably not nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar, and he proves again his unique mastery of the medium.

Our introduction to Matthias (Marin Grigore) occurs as he violently head butts his rude supervisor after being disrespected. Matthisas then returns to his home community where he encounters Ana (Macrina Barladeanu), the mother of his young son. Rudi (Mark Edward Blenyesi) is 8 years old, and he has recently witnessed something in the forest that has frightened him into silence. Ana does what she can to comfort him, while Matthias pushes him to ‘man up’ and face his fears. Matthias also re-connects with his former lover, Csilla (Judith State), who is the manager of the local bakery in town.

Csilla is working diligently to hire more employees at the bakery in order to qualify for grant money. The problem is that no locals want to work for minimum wage. Instead, many locals head to Germany and other areas for higher paying jobs, and the conflict arises when Csilla hires a couple of men from Sri Lanka. It’s at this point where this mishmash of citizens begins their racist rants … this despite being a mixed community where many friends and family member have headed out to find jobs in other areas. “Not in my backyard” is a phrase used so often in communities fighting against some cause, and that’s exactly what’s happened here.

Mungiu’s excellent film peaks with a 15 minute (or more) single take scene – a town hall meeting where a couple of dozen citizens speak out showing their small-mindedness. It’s painful to watch, yet also mesmerizing. Csilla and Matthias are front and center for the scene and both are superb, especially Csilla’s facial reactions and Matthias’ cowering (this after flaunting his powerful masculinity for so much of the film). By the time this scene concludes, this viewer was mentally exhausted while also being in awe. It’s this reaction which makes that final scene so confounding and seemingly out of place. Mungiu taps into the human behavior that we so often question these days, and he does so in a way that never preaches or judges. It’s truly exceptional filmmaking … except that final scene.

**NOTE: In Romania, an MRI is RMN (the film’s title)

Opens April 28, 2023


32 SOUNDS (2023, doc)

April 27, 2023

Greetings again from the darkness. We tend to believe that we are either participating in an activity (cooking a meal, riding a bike, playing a sport, etc), or sitting idly as a spectator (watching TV, listening to the radio, attending a kid’s play, etc). However, documentarian Sam Green is here to prove that there is another option, participatory listening. This is the action of listening “with”, rather than listening “to” … being fully present and attuned as you take in and process the vibrations of life occurring all around you. This could be a babbling stream, the rustling of leaves, or even the grinding of icemaker gears in your ten-year-old refrigerator. OK, Mr. Green doesn’t mention that last one, but you get the point.

Whether Director Green, whose 2003 documentary THE WEATHER UNDERGROUND was nominated for an Oscar, would agree with this being described as ‘experimental’ filmmaking, it’s clearly a different approach. At SXSW, he had an experiential set-up for viewers, and he recommends headphones for full effect. At a minimum, the film deserves an elite sound system, and some audience participation (closing of eyes, etc).

Most movie lovers appreciate when sound effects are used effectively and creatively, but Green is not just interested in the use of sound in cinema, but also in everyday settings. We get a clip of a ‘bad educational film’ used in schools to explain the physiology of the inner ear, and he even uses a whoopee cushion to make a point about ‘funny’ sounds and the expectations we have for specific sounds. We see Foley artist Joanna Fang creating sounds, and how her ‘cheat’ sounds are often more readily accepted than the real thing due to those expectations.

Annea Lockwood, the subject of Green’s 2021 documentary short, has spent a lifetime making and analyzing different sounds. She’s now 81 years old and studies the difference of underwater vs surface level sounds at a river, and the value of listening ‘with’, rather than listening ‘to’. She also shares her favorite quote from Roman Poet Ovid, “Everything changes, and nothing is lost”. This quote ties into the theory of Charles Babbage who suggested that all sounds throughout history are still floating in the air, and that we might be able to recapture those – meaning nothing is lost.

Green isn’t fully committed to numbering the 32 sounds for us, although it seems like the number is easily exceeded during the runtime. There is a fascinating story about how the last surviving bird of its species repeatedly sent out a mating call, one which could no longer be answered. Most of us love the sound of waves crashing, but how about the striking of a match, or the whoosh of a golf ball being struck? And of course, Green touches on music and how it can bring back the memory of a certain moment. One premise is that it can be easier to hear if you can’t see, so there are a few segments where we are asked to close our eyes. Mostly this helps us realize that not only should we stop and smell the roses, we should also stop and listen to them … or even the ‘room tone.’

A nationwide rollout of the film begins April 28, 2023 at Film Forum in NYC.


GHOSTED (2023)

April 21, 2023

Greetings again from the darkness. I am often accused of taking movies too seriously rather than just sitting back and enjoying the entertainment value. Well, this latest from director Dexter Fletcher (ROCKETMAN 2019, EDDIE THE EAGLE 2015) is textbook ‘popcorn entertainment’ made for those who prefer to sit back and enjoy. There is plenty to like here and it did generate a few laughs, yet it’s still a movie that doesn’t hold up to much thought or post-viewing discussion. SPIDER-MAN collaborators Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, and DEADPOOL collaborators Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have joined forces on a script that somehow doesn’t have the dialogue zings that can keep pace with the action sequences.

An early meet-cute occurs as organic family farmer Cole Turner (Chris Evans bucking his Captain America persona) unknowingly flirts with market shopper Sadie Rhodes (Ana de Armas, fresh off her Oscar nomination for BLONDE, 2022), recommending she purchase a cactus rather than a Begonia once she discloses her work travel schedule. An all-day and all-night date ends with Cole telling his family that “she may be the one.” His caustic sister (Lizzie Broadway) skewers him with the funniest one-liners in the film while informing that his smothering texts and emojis have likely caused Sadie to ghost him.

It’s at this point where the clumsy organic farmer turns into an extreme stalker and heads to London … don’t ask what trick allowed him to track her. A photo op at Tower Bridge ends with Cole being abducted and presumed to be “The Taxman” (cue Beatles song), the only person with the code to unlocking a chemical weapon in the possession of arms dealer and dastardly bad buy Leveque (Oscar winner Adrien Brody). Of course, Sadie rescues Cole at the last minute, and her cover as an international art curator is blown … surprise! She’s actually a highly-skilled CIA spy.

Three major action sequences are featured: an exciting bus-in-reverse along a mountain side road in Pakistan, a fight scene aboard a private jet, and a guns-blazing shootout in a rotating high-rise restaurant. Ana de Armas is terrific in the action sequence and her rapport with Chris Evans (first noted in KNIVES OUT, 2019) elevates the toothless banter between the two. It’s a bit shocking that this group of writers couldn’t land on wittier and sharper comments for these two characters as they bounce around the globe … even racing up THE EXORCIST stairway. At times it feels like an episode of “Get Smart”, although the action sequences are first rate.

Supporting roles are held by Mike Moh, Amy Sedaris, Tate Donovan, and the always fun Tim Blake Nelson. Many will enjoy the hand full of cameos that pop up, at least one “Wilhelm scream”, and the sometimes obvious and/or cheesy song selection … a rare soundtrack to include both The Knack and Dua Lipa. The film leans more into cute than witty and danger, but with two of the most attractive stars working today, that’s forgivable. Just get your popcorn ready and sit back and enjoy this rom-com/action-thriller, and don’t think too much.

The film will be on Apple TV+ on April 21.



April 21, 2023

Greetings again from the darkness. Good golly! Documentarian Lisa Cortes packs a lot into this profile of Richard Wayne Penniman, better known as Little Richard. Director Cortes sticks with a familiar structure for the biopic; however, two things stood out to me about this documentary: it features remarkably little music for a musical doc, and it works well for both those who are very familiar with the legendary performer and those needing an introduction.

In cradle-to-grave fashion, we learn about Richard’s mother and father, and that he was one of 12 children in the family from Macon, Georgia. Plenty of photographs and clips from the era are included, and things really kick in when the history of “Tutti Frutti” is discussed. Shifting a bit from its original meaning, Little Richard served up a searing version that shocked many. But what shocked him is that much tamer versions from Elvis and especially Pat Boone outsold his. I particularly enjoyed learning that Little Richard picked up his famous scream from gospel singer Marion Williams.

Ms. Cortes utilizes many interviews by Little Richard himself to cover his complex life filled with contradictions and new paths. His father kicked him out of the house for being gay, setting him up for a lifetime of searching for his true identity. Richard’s track included pushing the early boundaries of rock and roll, pushing further boundaries in the world of queerness, exploring many facets of religion and attempting to balance his belief in the bible with his love of orgies, and his lifelong search for a true identity.

It was the 1956 film, THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT, that provided most people’s first glance of Little Richard performing. The same can be said for Fats Domino, Eddie Cochran, and Gene Vincent, among others, but none had the impact or the look and music of Little Richard. His many hits after “Tutti Frutti” included “Long Tall Sally”, “Lucille”, and of course, “Good Golly, Miss Molly”. It’s fascinating to hear Mick Jagger, John Waters, Tom Jones, and others provide the acknowledgment of Little Richard’s influence, however, even more interesting is listening to Little Richard himself walk us through his various stages of being. This is a man who, lacking an ounce of humility, proclaims, “I’m the one who started it all”, referencing Rock and Roll. He’s also the man who renounced his gay identity in order to embrace religion and begin preaching.

Little Richard was a master showman with a daring and hyper-energetic stage presence. None other than The Rolling Stones once opened for him on tour. His tongue-in-cheek catchphrase became “Shut up”, and he was heavily into drugs during the 1970’s. Little Richard was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1986, and he has taken credit for the success of most every rock star over the last 70 years … and the fabulous closing montage makes it difficult to argue. Director Cortes does justice to the complex life of a complicated and talented man, and ‘Good Golly’, that was no easy task.

Opening in theaters and on Digital beginning April 21, 2023



April 21, 2023

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s not unusual for readers to feel a connection to their favorite author, but very few can match the bond shared by writer Judy Blume and her followers. Co-directors Davino Pardo and Leah Wolchok set out to profile the writer whose staggering sales figures (more than 80 million books sold) pale in comparison to the impact she had on so many young girls.

A film adaption (directed by Kelly Fremon Craig) of Ms. Blume’s most well-known book, “Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret”, is set for a release that corresponds to this documentary, so it’s likely her work is about to experience a revival of sorts. You might wonder how a 1970 book for adolescent girls could still have relevance today, and the answer is that the author is one of the few who addressed what mattered (and matters) to this group: masturbation, menstruation, relationships, body development. Blume’s work addressed these topics in such a way that girls could not only easily relate, but they felt comfort in knowing that they weren’t facing these changes alone. Blume became a best-selling author and a trusted advisor.

The filmmakers opt to include interviews with celebrities such as Molly Ringwald, Lena Dunham, and Samantha Bee, yet it’s the words from “normal” girls and women who recount the impact of the books that strikes an emotional chord. Watching Judy go through the mounds of letters she received from readers brings emphasis to what matters here. Yale University houses Blume’s archies, letters, and papers, and we sense the sentimentality as she re-reads some of these. Regular correspondence with writers Mary H.K. Choi and Lorrie Kim is remarkable, but it’s the consistent letters back and forth with Karen Chilstrom over so many years that pack an emotional wallop. Segments with Judy’s own children, daughter Randy and son Larry, are also included.

We learn Judy was a traditional 1950’s housewife who pursued a career of her own, a not-so-traditional move of the times. She persevered despite many closed doors, and went on to have incredible success doing exactly what she wanted in a style that bucked the trends. That she sold so many books is remarkable when you consider that the target audience for many of her books were too young to even buy books. We see numerous clips of Blume on TV Talk Shows telling her story … her confrontation with ultra-conservative James Buchannan is particularly entertaining. Although the film goes mostly in chronological order, only the most ardent fans will know what year a book being discussed was released. Now in her 80’s, Blume and her husband run a bookstore in Key West with a posted sign that reads … “We sell banned books.” What a fitting exclamation point to a remarkable woman and her career.

Streaming on Prime Video beginning April 21, 2023


GRINGA (2023)

April 21, 2023

Greetings again from the darkness. When a 16 year old girl has self-esteem issues, it can be painful to watch. As adults, we know it’s likely to get better, although it’s also possible things get worse before they improve. And ‘things getting worse’ is exactly what happens to Marge in this film co-directed by Marny Eng (long time stunt performer and coordinator) and EJ Foerster, and written by Patrick Hasburgh (writer and creator of TV series “Hardcastle and McCormick” and “21 Jump Street”).

Marge (Jess Gabor, “Shameless”) and her mother (Judy Greer) are both having a hard time. Mom is a California realtor who seems to go through men faster than she sells houses, and Jess is a self-described “fat and slow” bench-warmer on her soccer team, while also battling bulimia and her unpopularity with classmates. It’s at about this time when the “getting worse” part happens for Marge, and soon she’s crossing the border in search of her dad, who left home when she was two years old.

Jackson (Steve Zahn) is a former soccer star-turned alcoholic-surfer, and is no more prepared to be a father now than when Marge was born. It’s an awkward reunion since neither father nor daughter know the other, but they agree to spend a month getting familiar. It’s fun to watch these two bring out the best in each other. Dad promises to stop drinking and treat his girlfriend (Roselyn Sanchez, “Without a Trace”) better, and Marge cleans up her diet and magically improves her soccer skills while subbing for the local team her dad is coaching.

Mr. Zahn has been a familiar face and dependable performer since the early 1990’s, and was recently seen in season one of “The White Lotus.” In this role, he gets to flash some of his trademark goofiness, while also showing some depth as a man-child trying to get his act together. Zahn’s connection with Ms. Gabor is what makes the film click. While not familiar with her previous work, I was impressed with Gabor’s range her and realistic portrayal of a teenager in pain – slumped shoulders and plate of tacos, etc. Ms. Greer has a limited role here, and supporting work comes from Jorge A Jimenez, Valentina Buzzurro, and Nico Bracewell. It’s not really a comedy, although there are some slightly comical moments, and the first two acts are well done, though the poor sound mix and muddled final act don’t end things on a high note. It may seem formulaic at times, but noticing new talent is always a welcome development.

In theaters and VOD beginning April 21, 2023



April 21, 2023

Greetings again from the darkness. Argentinian writer-director Damian Szifron was behind the terrific WILD TALES (2014), which received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, and this time out, he and co-writer Jonathan Wakeham venture into psychological crime procedural territory. A captivating opening sequence, expert photography, and top notch acting from the two leads keeps us watching, although there seems to have been some confusion on the best path for the script. The end result is watchable, but not memorable.

It is New Year’s Eve in Baltimore and celebrations, revelry, and parties are occurring all over the city. As beat cop Eleanor Falco (Shailene Woodley, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, 2014) negotiates a mundane rift between an irritated diner owner and a slow-eating customer, shots begin to ring out. This frantic sequence captures the panic as we witness a few of the 29 gun shots that find a target. Officer Falco races a couple of blocks to the high-rise building where an explosion occurs. It turns out the sniper destroyed his own lair in order to avoid leaving evidence.

Enter renowned FBI Agent Lammark (Ben Mendelsohn, ANIMAL KINGDOM, 2010) who takes charge of the investigation. This point is mentioned because the chain-of-command plays a vital role in the proceedings … Lammark wants to run the investigation, but bureaucrats and politicians interfere. Lammark hones in on Falco and her instincts. Of course, she has a checkered past that includes having her FBI application denied. Here she acts as a liaison and provides insight into the killer. Get it? One damaged person can relate to another.

Some social commentary gets periodically interjected – gun control, power plays by law enforcement, misplaced priorities by politicians – but the fun part is watching Mendelsohn and Woodley flash their respective talent. She’s kind of a flawed Clarice Starling and he’s a guy that is committed to finding the bad guy. Filmed in Montreal, cinematographer Javier Julia maintains a cool atmosphere throughout, and Carter Burwell’s music delivers some excellent piano parts. This ends up being one of those movies that’s enough fun to watch if you don’t think too hard while it’s playing, and it also reminds us that Ben Mendelsohn and Shailene Woodley are fine actors who deliver in every role.

Opens in theaters on April 21, 2023



April 21, 2023

Greetings again from the darkness. Big Italian families in New York offer a smorgasbord of opportunities for interesting stories and characters. Ray Romano from “Everybody Loves Raymond” takes on his first feature film as writer-director, and he and co-writer Mark Stegemann (“Scrubs”) embrace the noise and combustibility of just such a family. During the story they make us laugh and cringe.

Romano also stars as Leo Russo, husband to Angela (Laurie Metcalf, “Roseanne”) and father to “Sticks” (relative newcomer Jacob Ward). What we soon figure out is that Leo is a helicopter parent to high school basketball star Sticks, while Mom is overprotective and scared of losing her son … while being constantly annoyed with everything due to another issue she’s trying to deal with on her own. We also see Leo works in the family construction business for his dad (Tony Lo Bianco) and douchey brother (Sebastian Maniscalo), both of whom show him no respect.

Sticks is an extremely quiet and shy high schooler who has battled anxiety issues his entire life. Both parents are shocked to discover he has a girlfriend. Dani (Sadie Stanley, “The Goldbergs”) is a free-spirit who is ready to shake the dust of Queens as soon as she graduates. She and Sticks couldn’t be any more different as she is confident and outgoing in contrast to his usual state of withdrawn.

During one of the big family Sunday dinners, we get one of the best meatball jokes ever, and the many family events (weddings, babies, etc) provide numerous opportunities for gags and punchlines. Beyond the comedy, there is true drama on display, and it kicks into uncomfortable gear when helicopter dad displays extremely poor judgment … made worse that he’s doing it for the wrong reason. His actions send shockwaves through the family. Parents often use “their kid’s best interest” as a reason for making decisions, but here it’s obvious to all (except Leo) that self-interest was the driving force.

There is a bit of a sitcom feel to the film at times, but the cast certainly elevates the project making the situations more believable. It’s awesome to see Tony Lo Bianco with a substantive role. He was everywhere in the 1970s and 1980s, including classic films THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) and THE SEVEN-UPS (1973). Ramono, Metcalf, and Maniscalo are all fine in their roles, and additional support work comes from John Manfrellotti, Jennifer Esposito (“Blue Bloods”), and Karen Lynn Gurney (for the SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER fans). But the real find here is Sadie Stanley and her electrifying smile. She is a true rising star. The film is full of characters who are all frightened or unsure, and despite the iffy family dynamics, it’s a reminder that each person must find their own way in life, even if the support from their family is a bit shaky.

Opening in theaters on April 21, 2023



April 19, 2023

Greetings again from the darkness. “You have the right to remain silent.” Whether you say it out loud or just finish it in your head, the vast majority of us know what follows, even if it’s (hopefully) just from watching TV and movies. You likely also know that it’s part of The Miranda Rights … a list of rights that anyone being arrested is entitled to. If you are like me, you probably hadn’t put any thought into the origin of those rights or the requirement for law enforcement to recite them in a timely manner. Director Michelle Danner (THE RUNNER, 2021) and co-writers George Kolber and J Craig Stiles are here to educate by bringing us the story of Trish Weir and Ernesto Miranda.

The film is based on the true story of Trish, an 18-year-old working at a local movie theater. After one late night bus ride home from work, she was abducted and raped. As Trish, Abigail Breslin proves yet again that she is a terrific actor, and fully grown up since her breakthrough performance in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006). What follows is gut-wrenching, and likely a scene that played out all too frequently fifty years ago, and still occurs today. Trish’s mom (Mireille Enos, “The Killing”) tries to dissuade her from going to the police by warning her that “they never believe the victim”, and that she will then be considered “damaged goods.” It’s painful to watch this play out, despite knowing that mom thinks she is protecting her young daughter. Trish’s sister Ann (Emily Van Camp, “Revenge”) is very supportive and follows her to the doctor for the initial check-up, to the police station for filing the report, and ultimately to the courtroom.

There is much to consider in this story. How courageous was Trish for standing up and pursuing the case? How about the detectives (played by Enrique Murciano, Brent Sexton) who recognized that even though other victims had chosen not to come forward, Trish could help them stop a really bad guy? And then there is a legal system that was unfair to both Trish and Ernesto Miranda (Sebastian Quinn), as well as the attorney, judges, and jurors involved with the cases. Fittingly, a clip of the 1962 classic TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is shown, emphasizing the wheels of justice turn slowly. We see that the ACLU attorney (Ryan Phillippe) gets involved when he believes Mr. Miranda was coerced into a confession. This is the case that changes everything.

Supporting work comes from Luke Wilson as Trish’s attorney, Lawrence Turoff; Andy Garcia as Miranda’s first defense attorney, Alvin Moore; Donald Sutherland as a judge in the case; Taryn Manning (“Orange is the New Black”) as a key witness; Dan Lauria as the examining doctor; and Kyle MacLachlan as Chief Justice Earl Warren, who is excited for a rare public reading of the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in 1966. It should be noted that the film is very well acted, with the notable exception of Ryan Phillippe, who tries oh-so-hard to steal his scenes, failing painfully.

Michelle Danner’s work as director here is exceptional, given how many facets to the story must be juggled and given proper due. Even the re-trial of Miranda is handled well, as Trish is put through another round of emotional turmoil, this time involving her spouse. The film ends with a startling statistic: only 5 of every 1000 sexual assaults result in a conviction. Those are today’s figures, so we are left to wonder just how much has changed over the past 60 years.

The film is currently playing the Film Festival circuit