Wednesday, March 27, 2019

MOVIE REVIEWS #157: "THE FAVOURITE", "BLACKKKLANSMAN", "A QUIET PLACE", "MINDING THE GAP", "EIGHTH GRADE" , "THE DEATH OF STALIN", "LEAVE NO TRACE", "THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS", "PADDINGTON 2", "A CIAMBRA", "LA 92", "JANE", "NOVITIATE", "AMERICAN MADE", "THE SURVIVALIST", "SCORE: A FILM MUSIC DOCUMENTARY", "BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR STORY", "DINA", and "EAGLES OF DEATH METAL: NOS AMIS (MY FRIENDS)"

Well, that's the longest unplanned break I've ever had. 

Yeah, (Sigh), yeah. Things have not been going particularly well for me lately. Personally, I've had some setbacks, some struggles, most of which were outside my control. I've had to move a few times in the last few months. I'm still working on getting 100% out of it personally, but I'm at a point where I can get back to blogging again and thank Christ for that. 

Don't think I've had nothing to say over this time, I'll get to saying some of those things more often now, especially about the Oscars, which I didn't like, felt needed a host, and they could've just made Tina Fey & Co. the hosts since they had them, blah, blah, blah, it's long dead and I missed the window to comment on that and a lot of things, but I'm gonna get to some of those thoughts at some other time. That said, I do plan on refocusing a bit on what I blog about, I've been planning a physical change to the blog for a while, I'm not sure that's gonna material anytime soon at this point, but a shift of content focus and perspective might be coming up. It's about time I re-invent myself anyway, but right now, I just want to review some movies. I've seen a lot of films during this time, and I'm not reviewing all of them, but I gotta review as many of the recent and important ones as I can, so sorry if this post is a bit longer than normal, but we got some movies to review and I'm just happy I can blog regularly again, for now. 

Alright, let's bring this blog back, with some talk about the films I've seen lately, and let's start with those Oscar-nominees and winners.


THE FAVOURITE (2018) Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

★★★★★




There's a scene at the very end of "The Favourite" that caught me offguard. It's the final scene of the movie actually, and it involves Queen Anne (Oscar-winner Olivia Colman) getting her foot massaged by Abigail (Oscar-nominee Emma Stone). Queen Anne insists that Abigail massage her foot after she learns about Abigail's true nature and intent with her friendship. Neither actor speaks much after awhile. One girl rubbing the others foot, and they both look off until their faces are merged into a two-shot that Ingmar Bergman would be proud, and then, that image dissolves into rabbits, the way Yorgos Lanthimos should be proud of. What do they both realize during this moment of quiet thought? That basically, they are both stuck in their worlds and positions and neither can ever get out of them. Abigail, forever being at the command of Queen Anne, the Queen, forever stuck in a position where she's in a world where she'll never be able to know who she can and cannot trust. 

Yorgos Lanthimos has made a striking career really quickly making movies about character who are trapped or stuck in their own worlds, cursed and damned by the societal pressures and norms that are thrusted upon them. I'm not sure why it never dawned on me that he's perfect to do a story about royalty until now, but naturally even his films about the royal family are different, stranger, and more surreal than most. 

"The Favourite" is a battle of lyrical wits and physical embarassments between Lady Sarah (Oscar-nominee Rachel Weisz) the Duchess of Marlborough and a new, young servant, Abigail Hill, both of whom are looking to become the Keeper of the Privy for Queen Anne (Oscar-nominee Olivia Colman). If you're obscure royal history is failing you at this moment, don't worry, you don't need to catch up. The only thing you really need to know is that, Weisz is Bette Davis, Stone is "All About Eve" and Colman's gout-infested feet is the Broadway stage, and they all want to be the one who gets to massage them eight times a week. Okay, I'm being simplistic, and this is royalty. Royalty in all it's acerbic wit and raunchiness. Oh, there's also a war with France going on and a long discussion of landowner taxes, but that could literally be anything in this film. I know, it's actually based on real events, but this movie exists in the Lanthimos world. One where the surreal is expected, the abnormal is a minor inconvenience, and everything and everyone's main objective is sex. In fact, it seems to be a downfall for those who may wants something else like war or taxes or tax relief. 

He does remember to keep some truly biting wit. And yet, "The Favourite" is a strangely human story of absurdism. Sex that occasionally bumps into companionship, if for no other reason than because companionship is occasionally just as primal and necessary as sex is. Both Lady Sarah and Abigail fulfill both Queen Anne's personal needs and her-um, personal needs, and yet, that's the ultimate problem with royalty. Trying to determine genuine emotion and companionship is basically impossible, something that all three characters inherently know, but they must still strive to seek out something real in a world that's nothing but artifice. 


"The Favourite" is probably the first time I fully realize Lanthimos's ideal vision. I've enjoyed most of his previous films; I even enjoyed "Alps", one of his films that could almost seem plausible in our modern world. Watching "The Favourite" is a delight and joy, the same way I enjoyed watching Tim Burton's "Sweeney Todd...", knowing that this was the perfect combination of filmmaker and material that I could ever ask for. It's raunchy, it's kinky, it's weird, it's disturbing, it's got a bunch of rabbits, it's the kind of story that's so ridiculous you could only believe it if it take place in the world of the British monarchy, and it's pure Lanthimos. 


BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018) Director: Spike Lee

★★★★★




Nothing ever is simple with a Spike Lee movie. I know, he wishes it was; I can feel it. His smaller movies are often full of the strange, the surreal, the nostalgic, or sometimes are just plain old fun,...; this movie is full of humor, wit and absurdity. I know that he'd rather have fun and tell more personal stories about people and characters. I suspect "BlackkKlansman" started that way. Or, I suspect that more than most of his other mainstream films, Spike Lee wanted it to be that way. 

It's easy to see why Spike is the best and perhaps only director who could've or should've handled the material. The movie tells the true story about Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) who became the first African-American to join the Boulder, Colorado police force. His first rookie assignment is in the Evidence and Reports Room. He then gets an undercover job infiltrating a speaking engagement from Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) aka Stokely Carmichael. This was is back in the day when becauseAfrican-American Civil Rights groups like the Black Panthers were investigated as they were thought to be terrorist organizations by the FBI, and other things that should seem like they happened way too longago only to feel like they're still happening now.  He befriends one of the major community organizers there, Patrice Dumas (Laura Ruth Harrier) one of the more anti-cop revolutionaries that strive to inspire change. After the meeting, Ture is pulled over and Patrice is harrassed by one of the local cops. Patrolman Weller (Frederick Landers). 

The thing that's fascinating about Stallworth, as well as by Washington's performance is how calm and stoic he always seems to be. He can animated, and when he starts answering a recruitment advertisement in the paper for new Ku Klux Klan members, he starts to seem that way, somewhat, but there is a reserved, stoicism to him, nearly the whole movie. You never quite realize what he's thinking, even when you think you know what he's thinking. This is what makes him perfect enough to be mistaken for white over the phone when talking with members of the local chapter of the Klan, like Walter (Ryan Breachaway) or even the National Director David Duke (Topher Grace) who he forms a bond with over-the-phone as he discusses getting his membership sped up, but that's all good for over-the-phone. In person, he recruits his co-worker Ryan Zimmerman (Oscar-nominee Adam Driver) a Jewish cop who's perfect for going undercover personally into the organization.

At first, the organization, seems rather benign on it's surface, take off the white sheets and it's mostly just a bunch of guys in a living room, hanging out and shooting the shit, although sometimes they head out into the woods and shoot with rifles at some demogatory targets. Of course, it does turn out that they're planning on orchestrating a major terrorist attack, right when David Duke is coming to town, and as Stallworth gets assigned to be his protection detail. All slapstick absurdities aside, in the middle of one of the climaxes, Lee splits between footage of the Klan rally, which, to nobody's surprise if you know Spike Lee, they show them watch "The Birth of a Nation", he intercuts with scenes of Harry Belafonte playing, essentially himself, detailing the true story of the lynching of Jesse Washington, a death that's sometimes noted as being an inspiration for Griffith's movie.

"BlackkKlansman" is quite fascinating. The movie on paper plays like a classic absurd screwball comedy. It also plays with several inner conflicts. Stallworth and Zimmerman's friendship is key as both of them have struggles with their own personal identity throughout the assignment, Zimmerman getting the most personal and direct conflicts as being Jewish, he's just as hated to the Klan as African-Americans, but he can slip in and hide that fact, much the same way he can slip in and hide his denomition behind the thin blue line, whether other conflicts and disreputable behavior may in fact lie. Officer Weller may or may not be apart of the Klan, but like being apart of that organization gives those members a feeling of power and invisibility, being a member of the police seems to give him free reign as others are afraid to call him out for fear of being ostracized themselves. This conflict's perpetuated with Stallworth's relationship with Patrice who's vehemently anti-cops and considers them just another gang fo white people who live to keep down African-Americans, and feels Stallworth's decision to try to change the system from the inside is foolhardy. 

And yet, at the end of the movie, there's a knock on the door. A cop and a revolutionary, two complete opposites, pick up their guns, and together, they drift on down the hallways and towards the front door. On the other side of Lee's signature double-trolley shot, reality and I'm not just talking about the burning crosses. A sober reminder that "BlackkKlansman", this movie should be a comedy, but it isn't. It should be an outdated period piece of another time and another place, of a time and condition that's well passed us by. A reminder that while we may laugh, and we will laugh, that we should be laughing at the ways we were, instead of being reminded that things truly just haven't changed as much as they should've.  


A QUIET PLACE (2018) Director: John Krasinski

★★★★1/2

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After one viewing, I'm certain that "A Quiet Place", is best watched, when you're in a-eh, well, a quiet, place. Something I didn't manage to do. (Shrugs) I tried, but it's a loud house, I had the headphones in my computer and everything, but it was still fairly loud. "A Quiet Place", is not joking; it's a film that insists you listen and pay attention; and don't just watch and pay attention, but listen, if you can. And also, keep quiet, your life depends on it. 

"A Quiet Place" takes place in an apocalyptic future where Earth has been taken over by, some, creature. I have no idea if they're alien, or manmade, or why they're huge, aggressive creatures, or what, but they're here and after some time scavenging, they managed to seek out a farm that they can, quietly, live and survive. The father, Lee Abbott (John Krasinski, who directed and co-wrote the script) spends some time trying to use morse code to connect to, whoever else has possibly survived. His pregnant wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt) deals with much of the domestic issues, she cooks, does some of the farming, and often takes care of their two kids, the older teenager Regan (Millicent Simmonds) who is deaf, and their younger son Marcus (Noah Jupe). Most of the conflict surrounds Regan, who, along with the rest of the family, suffers from grief after losing loved ones to these insect-like monsters that seem to roam the planet now. Regan is the one character who's actually deaf, but that means that they're all speak sign language, a huge adventage. However, since she can't hear at all, she can't always contemplate how dangerous the simplest sound is, or be able to hear danger when it perhaps is coming or on the way.

This a really classical thriller, the kind of Serling-esque tension that we're often missing in feature films and monster movies these days. This is only the second film from John Krasinski I've seen, I haven't seen his previous film "The Hollars", and of course I'm familiar with much of his acting work, currently playing Jack Ryan in that new Amazon series as well as his years on "The Office" along with some great sporadic film work. His first directing feature was the experimental "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" was a strange amalgram of random David Foster Wallace stories that mostly left me cold. "A Quiet Place" introduces us to an assured, skill craftsman who I now believe is capable of as much behind the camera as he is in front of it. Emily Blunt was the SAG Award for Supporting Actress for this performance, her and Krasinski are husband and wife in real life, although I think this is the first time they're ever actually worked together until now. This is actually a fascinating film acting wise, and presents several challenges. There's little actual dialogue, there's a lot of emotions and strong feelings that have to both simultaneously be expressed and repressed. I was particularly impressed with Millicent Simmonds performance, the only performer who's actually deaf, and she has a lot to do in this movie, and her ability to show this incredibly wide range of emotions is really engaging. 

The last film I remember that was this quiet and used that silence of sign language to this devastating effect was the Ukrainian film "The Tribe", one of the most underseen and underrated movies to come out in the last few years. That movie was way more ambitious and made a point to not include any unnatural sounds and didn't even have subtitles for the maximum effect of being completely engrossed in the soundless world. "A Quiet Place" isn't quite that jarring, but for a use of sound being a crucial element integrated into a story, it's one of the more inventive ones I've seen in awhile. "A Quiet Place" could've been done wrong in a million different ways, but Krasinski manages to toe the line perfectly to create an unexpectedly good psychological thriller.


MINDING THE GAP (2018) Director: Bing Liu

★★★★

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So there's a classmate I knew back in elementary school that I look up. I won't reveal his name, although I doubt it matters 'cause I never seem to find him. I'm not entirely sure he's alive anymore to be honest. You don't think about it when you're young or you don't notice, but if you go back and think about it, there's usually signs of when somebody is coming from a troubled home. This kid, who I'm gonna call CL, he often got in trouble. He was often a troublemaker in class, he was a bit awkward. He didn't skateboard like the teens and 20somethings in "Minding the Gap", all of whom for reasons seems to have left home in their teens and live out on their own in menial wage jobs and spend much of their time skateboarding and loosely enjoying life, but they remind me a lot of CL.

There's a lot more of those kind of kids that you grow up with than you think, especially in Las Vegas where I live and back when our education system was particularly flailing. Anyway, I forget what grade but, at some point, we got a note from one of the higher-ups from the school that CL's sister had committed suicide. I-, like many at the time didn't even know what that word meant. I don't know how old or how young she was, and we were told not to say or comment much on it at the time, but once in a while I'd hear some kind insult him at a lunchtable about it. He never did anything about it as far as I know. Perhaps he did at some point, but I just wonder, what exactly kind of homelife did he have? He's not the only one either, I think of several others that weren't as lucky or blessed that I may have been. I mean, you occasionally hear statistics and whatnot. How many people were sexually abused by kids, how many kids were physically abused by parents, etc. etc. and you start doing the math of people you've seen, etc.

You never ask about it, but...- (Shrugs) Anyway, "Minding the Gap", deals with young people, most of them are skateboarders or other kinds of hanger-ons and stoners and whatnot and all of them, including the filmmaker Bing Liu, seems to survive a physically abusive home. The movie basically follows these people for awhile, and I guess just explores the lives of these people. For instance, there's one guy, one of the most stoners of the group, who has a kid and even marries young. They're barely teenagers and both of them take small jobs while they seem to be good, trying parents. If you didn't know better you'd probably be thinking that they were probably cool hippie parents. Of course, time goes by and both of them seem to find themselves in familiar patterns of behavior that they grew up with.

Others seem to do better. One guy works as a dishwasher but dreams of running a skateboard shop, one that he starts to slowly work while sometimes the best these guys get is promotions in jobs that they never really imagines ever wanting to begin with. I don't quite know what "Minding the Gap" is, I guess it's this weird time between late teens and early twenties, which most people don't really know what they're doing, but I suspect those with particularly difficult beginnings probably have it the hardest. They have limited options and less knowledge to know how to overcome it often, and they also have no sense of the future and ranging hormones. It's sad to see one try to take a test about trying to get more of a job and come back saying that he couldn't understand what they even wanted from some of the questions.

"Minding the Gap", could easily on first glance be mistaken for the kind of documentary that looks like the Winona Ryder character from "Reality Bites" would make, thinking that recording her hanging out with friends is a real powerful doc, but in actuality, there's a lot more going on in the film and the more you learn about the characters and the filmmaker Bing Liu, the more emotional and powerful the film is. It explores the aftermaths of people who's coming-of-age was both not ideal and yet still continuing as they struggle and stumble into adulthood. I feel repeated viewings would make "Minding the Gap", even deeper and more emotional. In fact, I hope Liu thinks about revisiting his Rockford, Illinois friends in a few years, like the Michael Apted "Up" Documentaries. See where these guys and girls are every few years; I'd like to see that.


EIGHTH GRADE (2018) Director: Bo Burnham

★★★★1/2

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"Eighth Grade" received a lot of awards and acclaim and I can see why. The script and directing from first-time Writer/Director Bo Burnham, who's following the Judd Apatow path of going from standup into filmmaking is quite assured and astonishing and particularly amazing for a first feature given the subject matter.

I can think of some great films about the struggles with teenagerdom, the best one about being in Middle School is Todd Solondz's "Welcome to the Dollhouse", a movie that still comes off as striking and powerful years after much of Solondz's sardonic cynicism has gone out of style. I guess the opposite film of that would be Catherine Hardwicke's "Thirteen", which is a much more darker and transgressive of that age. More recently, "The Edge of Seventeen" is a recent masterpiece, although this film feels more like Marielle Heller's brilliant "The Diary of a Teenage Girl", especially in the beginning with how the main character is documenting her life into a recording device, which is actually an older conceit that most people might realize. Overall though, "Eighth Grade" feels more reminiscent of a foreign film, something that a young Catherine Breillat or Agnes Varda might've made if she started out today. Honest about the insecurity and unsuredness of struggling between staying young and growing up too fast, and being completely unable to truly handle both, even as one tries to put up the best front that one can.

It also begins and ends with it's protagonist posting her you video diaries on Youtube. Everytime I see a kid doing that, I think about the Pilot episode of "Blossom" and how that opens with Mayim Bialik's main character doing a video diary, back in the late '80s. (Kids think this is so new.) Although it does give us a new look at how today's youth deal with their everyday life which includes lots of run-ins with modern technology, complete with a shattered cell phone screen. This protagonist is Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) a young eighth grader who's graduating from Middle School, which apparently is still a thing...- (Did I just skip my Middle School Graduation Ceremony, or,-, eh, I don't know; I never did think that made sense) and she spends her spare time posting her video blog on Youtube, which is-, well, I guess, hmm-.

Give me a second, I gotta describe this accurately. In one way, it's essentially a diary, it's a way to express her deep underlying fears and desires, and let out some emotional pain and frustration, however she does it in a way that takes the form of a-, a guess it's supposed to be a self-help or guidance blog, about how to survive being a teenager and to be popular? I've seen a Youtube post or two like this before; I haven't looked too deep into this trend on Youtube, but I can't say that this doesn't sound somewhat familiar. There have been times where I'm often acting like an expert on something that in some respects I don't quite know everything about. I don't think I've ever been this, transparent about it, where it's clear that she's talking about the things that completely fear her, as she talks to, supposedly other teenage girls who view her video blogs about how to overcome them and how they can ultimately be able to become the popular girl in school-, or, not even that, just the girl in school that's ultimately comfortable with herself.

I get this. I often give advice to people about how to act and behave and succeed, advice that I often don't follow myself and am struggling with it. It's a cry for help as much as anything, although it's also just a cryout to be recognized, to be shown that you exist. Even if you do exist and are well-liked, it's not always easy to make a connection that really hits.

I don't remember much of my actual eighth grade year, unlike young Kayla, if I ever was invited to go to a rival's pool party, like she is invited by Kennedy's (Catherine Oliviere) mother, I wouldn't have gone and avoided the anxiety attack altogether. That said I definitely remember wanting to leave so much that I spent my 9th Grade at a different high school then the local one that everybody else went to. It's still one of the biggest mistakes of my life, partly because the magnet program that I went to was so poorly run and organized at that time, that even with my best efforts and a bottle of Excedrin a week, I was just gonna be overworked and underperforming, and I was so excited to be back at my regular high school with people I actually recognized and a workload that was conducive to my learning, that I actually started to truly make friends and get out once in a while.

I bring that up because the best and most appealling fact about "Eighth Grade" is how brutally relatable it is to feeling of inadequacy and unsuredness. This movie is also about how social media can definitely exasperbate these struggling emotions. When you're always supposed to put up a happy front on social media, especially in a world where most of our interactions of substance take place on our smartphones.

She does meet one young girl, a high schooler named Olivia (Emily Robinson) a high school Senior who is apart of a program that helps middle schoolers adjust to high school better. She is a good person, and even invites Kayla to go out to the mall with her friends one night. It doesn't go particularly well, especially when one of Olivia's friends, Riley (Daniel Zolghadri) drives her home, and there's a realistic and emotionally painful sexual experience with him, not sex, but still, a difficult uncomfortable first negative experience with sex and sexual expectations from idito teenage boys. She does eventually come around on one goofy kid, Gabe (Jake Ryan) who seems to want to befriend her and she has a minor crush on.

There's a lot of uncertainty in the film, which is correct, it only takes place over a week and doesn't aim to reveal a great or even a perfect future. Josh Hamilton plays a good part as Kayla's single father; there's never any discussion or talk about what happened to her mother, but he tries as a parent and gives a good speech at the end.

"Eighth Grade" is an ambitious and successful first feature for Writer/Director Bo Burnham a comic who began his career as a teenager making comedy videos. In some ways "Eighth Grade" incorporates so much of what it means to grow up in this modern world; it probably will work better on a younger generation than I; despite the movie's insipid and outright stupid R rating, this is a great movie for kids to see, maybe an important one to see and be introduced into the teenage film canon. Elsie Fisher in particular gives a brave an emotionally strong performance. There's hardly a scene where she isn't in and isn't the focus of the scene and she nails this role in some of the same ways that Molly Ringwald once upon an '80s used to nail hers.

That said, I can't help but think of the best line from "Welcome to the Dollhouse", when Dawn asks her old brother Mark if Middle School ever gets any better, and he simply responds, "No, things don't get better until high school." I wish somebody would've told me that before I started middle, and I wish someone had told that to Kayla too. I'm glad she learns it on her own, but a warning would've been nice.


THE DEATH OF STALIN (2018) Director: Armando Iannucci

★★★★

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I have to confess that I've always been a bit taken aback by the popularity and critical acclaim that Armando Iannucci has gotten. I always understood that he was talented, but going into "The Death of Stalin", everything I'd seen of his has left me underwhelmed. I wasn't particularly big on "In the Loop", his cult British series that was adapted into a feature film that helped him break out in America. I also, must confess, I've never liked "Veep". Well,- I've only seen one season, admittedly and I will give it another chance at some point in the near future, it is a good show, but...- it's so cynical. That's always been my particular issue with him, it's not that his material isn't accurate or that his political satire doesn't touch a raw nerve or truth on an occasion or two, but there was just never anybody you were truly trying to cheer for. I don't have an issue with everybody in politics having blood on their hands, but it always feels like all his characters entered the world of politics without there ever being a true intent to ever strive to do good. Maybe that's because whatever inspiration they had got beaten out of the characters and that's the idea, but as somebody who actually loves government and definitely knows just how corrupt it is and can be, this just feels off to me. I don't mind that the Leslie Knope's of the world getting their ideals shattered and destroyed on a regular basis by beaurocracy, but I can never spot the Leslie Knope's in his work. (Yeah, I'm still mad that "Veep" kept winning Emmys while "Parks and Recreation" consistently got ignored, and to this day, and I have no idea how or why that kept on happening.) 

So, I came into "The Death of Stalin" unsure of what to expect and my expectations particularly tempered. That said, I think I finally have come to understand him. He is definitely a satirist, a point one at that, but finally in "The Death of Stalin", he has found a target that I believe truly earns the cynical satire that he provides. I mean, the clear obvious companion to this film is Milos Forman's "The Fireman's Ball", a movie that was banned in his native Czechoslovakia for symbollically showing the utter incompetence of the Communist leadership. "The Death of Stalin," is actually based on a comic graphic novel, but it's actually a surprisingly accurate account of what happens when a tyrant suddenly dies, and the remains of the leadership suddenly have to put together a country, a government, and a funeral, all while honoring his memories, while simultaneously moving to eradicate and erase his wrongs, as well as other parts of the leadership. 

Oh, and they also have to put together a leadership. At least, they don't have to figure out how to put together a swimsuit competition, yet. 

In the world's universe, he's poisoned by a cellist's pen, Maria (Olga Kurylenko) who slipped a note to him in a recording of a classical performance he requested. That's fictional, although the re-recording of a live broadcast specifically for Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin), because the radio station wasn't recording to begin with, is based on a true event. Anyway, Stalin suddenly dies, and that's when the coupe begins, or at least, it would, once they figure out what to do with the body. 

Somewhat condensed in it's timeframe in parts, while exaggerated and sped up in others, the story is basically about how a lowly Secretary of Agriculture who Stalin basically only kept around because he could make him laugh named Nikita Khruschev (Steve Buscemi) managed to take over and maneuver around and through some particularly brutal and horrendous men as he seems to stumble into leadership of the biggest nation on Earth, while everyone else, just stumbles. Not that Khruschev isn't also murderous, but there's a method to his madness. 

He's able to keep toadies like Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) at bay, Stalin's kids get maneuvered Svetlana and Vasily (Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend) out of the way so they don't screw anything up, he finds what few qualified doctors are left in the country to make sure Stalin's dead, 'cause there are a few close calls. Make sure Beria (Simon Russell Beale) or Molotov (Michael Palin) don't begin a coupe of their own, or to hold them off or undermine them while they circumnavigate or reverse some atrocities while replacing them with others. 


It's interesting seeing actual history filtered through Iannucci's vision, 'cause he has a way of taking the events that we would think of as important historical benchmarks, he has a way of cutting them to the bare bones of reality they probably are. Politics of course, has a way of doing that as well, the poetry we campaign in and prose we govern in has a natural way of being undercut with decrepit old buildings, paperwork, red tape and bloodshed, and we get all of that as well as other absurdities. 

I laughed a lot at "The Death of Stalin"; I always laughed at Iannucci's work, but this was the first time I felt like it was earned and deserved. It's not that I didn't appreciate how sharp a knife he cut his satire with, but I was always troubling with what he was cutting and why he was cutting it. I suspect at a different time and a different place, his comedy would even be more appreciated than he already is; he's certainly earned my appreciation.


LEAVE NO TRACE (2018) Director: Debra Granik

★★★1/2


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The thing that haunted me most about "Leave No Trace" is that, we never do learn, why? Why is this man, Will (Ben Foster) living in the woods, and why has he brought along his daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) along with him. He teaches her to survive on the land and have formed a makeshift nomadic home in a tent and using other surrounding areas of the woods. At first, I was expecting an answer, a belief that something happened, some kind of personal disaster, a lost of a job, a family, a natural disaster,- Will makes some money selling prescription drugs to other struggling n'er-do-wells but,- the thing that ultimately distressed me was the weird thought that I had that, perhaps Will, wanted to live like this. He wanted to be surviving on the land and be poor and to help raise his kid like this.

If that's the case, then I'm honestly kinda disturbed. There's a really troubling history in America with thinking that, some of the downtrodden and homeless are consciously or subconsciously people who want to be that way, so when I see a portrayal of somebody who, kinda fits that description, it makes me a bit concerned. When, after authorities take in the pair for, essentially living on government land where they were not supposed to be living, Will takes a couple tests at a veteran's home, and after one of the questions. he mentions that he used to be a team player. Those are foreboding words to me as well as his uncomfortableness with technology, and there's some other clues.

Soonafter, they are given a small little mobile place to stay temporarily, under the eyes of some fumbling but well-meaning bureaucratic workers, as well as with some of the other locals and begins to understand their lives and a sense of community that she clearly has never had. Will, sells some of his prescriptions but he then gets a job at a Christmas tree farm, at least for the season. It becomes somewhat clear that Will is a veteran who's got some PTSD, and becomes engaged in the world of veterans who are still suffering in several different ways.

Maybe I needed to watch this movie a little bit closer. It's the second feature I've seen from Debra Granik after her breakthrough feature "Winter's Bone" that made Jennifer Lawrence a household name. She's also made the documentary "Stray Dog" about biker who loves small dogs. She's got a fascination with those groups and people who are forgotten by the rest of our modern world and society. I think it worked better in "Winter's Bone" because of how mysterious and deep the world is. The movie also was a mysterious Kafkaesque dive into an underground crime world in an-already strange and opaque new world that we rarely saw on the screen. This is an interesting world, and it's a a good different kind of story, but not exactly as compelling. I can't imagine "Winter's Bone" taking place anywhere other than deep in the Ozark Mountains, but "Leave No Trace" could reasonably take place in several places. That's not a dealbreaker but that's a bit of a disappointment; that's one of the aspects of her work I admired the most.

Still, there's too much good to completely ignore here, especially the performances by Foster and young McKenzie among others, Dale Dickey for instance has a nice small part here. It's a good movie; there's enough to watch, and I guess the relationship and growth of Tom is fascinating, but I still suspect that there's a certain amount of bad faith involved in how the narrative came about. Even if it's explainable, I'm not sure they entirely portray her father's behavior as somewhat, abhorrent. It's not romanticized, but I'm not comfortable with it, so I don't think the movie works as well as it possibly could've.


THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS (2018) Director: Tim Wardle

★★★★

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So there was a documentary made a couple years ago called "Twinsters" that I greatly admired. It was directed by Samantha Futerman a Korean-American actor who through social media and a popular Youtube video she was in, found out that she had a twin sister, a fashion design in Paris named Anais who was adopted on the other side of the world after being given up by their Korean mother in Seoul.

Considering how weird and rare it is, it's actually amazing how many stories and tropes we have in literature and pop culture we have surrounding long lost twins. I guess there's several reasons for that, the search for a complete self and feeling like something is essentially missing in one's life, the thought there's somebody else out there that's just like me, or perhaps just like me, but different. (Admittedly, a lot of these tropes are of the "evil twin" variety, that's probably even rarer in culture than the separated-at-birth twins narrative)

In "Three Identical Strangers", we have a particularly unusual case. This was a little bit before my time, but some of the images of the movie seem somewhat familiar. It's the incredible story of Eddie Galland, David Kellman and Robert Shafran, three young men who grew up, about 100 or so miles from each other, who turned out to be identical triplets, only finding out about each other's existence after two of them ran into each other at college, and then a third came around after that original human interest story made international headlines. And the three handsome young men, took advantage of their newfound fame. It wasn't that hard; the myth is that of course, twins, particularly identical twins, often are quite similar, and well, they were particularly similar. They liked the same thing, had many of the same movements, they liked to dress similarly, they even had similar family dynamics, like older sisters who were also previously adopted. They smoked the same cigarettes, they liked the same music, etc. etc.

In fact, they had a lot of similarities and coincidences. At first, it was taken at face value and they exploited their fame. They went on every talk show you can think of, they partied a lot at Studio 54 and other famed nightclubs. You might recognize their cameo in "Desperately Seeking Susan". Eventually though, their lives became somewhat troubled, 'cause even though they were quite similar, those minor differences did matter.

I-, I don't want to get into all of the revelations that occur in this film, as this wonderful-yet-surreal human interest story, starts to become more terrifying and frightening. I think it's obvious that, the discussion of nature vs. nurture comes up. Obviously it does. How it comes up...- let's just say that, some of the coincidences, well, they weren't as coincidental as they originally thought. The adoption agency, had specifically separated them as apart of a long-term social psychological experience, one that never got completed and who's notes are tightly-locked up and black-barred inside the Harvard Hall of Records. News and information that's still incomplete and still not enough for one of the triplets, who committed suicide after some stints in mental institution, which is something else the three triplets had in common. They mention once meeting their original mother once, and she seemed a bit like them, which back in their twenties was often just being a bit of a messed-up drunk, but now they wonder if they should've dug more deeply into her background.

"Three Identical Strangers" is the kind of story that's hard to get a grasp on. It feels like one thing, but the closer you dig into it, the darker it becomes, and the worst part yet is that this is a story that's still not entirely told; there's details missing, and who knows when or if we'll ever find out about all of the possible subjects that were effective by these separations. Yes, it seems that many people effected by this adoption agency were separated from their siblings for the purpose of science. Whatever their results in trying to answer that unanswerable question about nature and nurture is frightening enough. Although my bigger concern actually, is just many strange coincedences that exist in society, well, exactly just how many of them were indeed coincidences.


PADDINGTON 2 (2018) Director: Paul King

★★★1/2

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I didn't write a full review of the original "Paddington" when it came out a couple years ago, 'cause I was going through a rough time back then too, so I skimmed over a lot of reviews back then, but "Paddington" is popular. To this day, I know some people in some FB film groups who are obsessed with the films and think it's some of the best films, ever, it seems. I actually do have a similar soft spot for "Paddington"; I know he's always been big in Great Britain as a childhood character, in America, I've always regarded him as a cult character. I knew a few people, one particular close family friend who was huge into Paddington when she was young; I even gave her a Paddington book I had once as a kid, and it was a nice book too. So, I've always been familiar, and to some extent, part of that cult American fandom of "Paddington", but even saying that, Paddington is just weird.

It's always gonna be weird too. I think half the reason there's such a huge fandom for both of these first films, and I liked both of them a lot myself too, but I think most people are just amazed they came out as well as they did. I mean, he's a bear. He's from Darkest Peru, he loves orange marmalade, and he's a bear, who lives and walks around London with the Brown family, and we're basically supposed to treat this all like it's completely normal. I think the nearest American equivalent that we have to Paddington, that's still hugely popular and an essential part of our childhood reading is Curious George, and I love Curious George, even today as well, and yeah, that series is now weird too, 'cause it's not really a well-accepted idea in most of the world that people keep monkeys as pets, although it actually wasn't that uncommon even twenty years ago, monkeys would be kept as pets. (Seriously, in certain parts of Asia for awhile it was quite common, people kept them like pets; I even remember seeing old documentary footage of humans keeping them like babies, wearing diapers and all, especially when they were young.) Nowadays, it's-, we're a little more familiar with just how disturbing, violent, and in some cases illegal it is to keep monkeys as pets, but there was a time in the recent past that it was acceptable, so even today we kinda overlook it with Curious George. That said, Paddington has always been a bear! There's no scenario in recent times where it's just, okay, to keep bears as pets, or for that matter, as members of the family as well as functioning members of society. I mean, the other famous British Children's Literature bear, is a doll, and even if he wasn't, Christopher Robin still didn't invite him to live in his home. Winnie-the-Pooh had a nice little place to live on his own, that could've used a bigger window. (And frankly Paddington's right, Marmalade is better than honey, although admittedly's honey's more versatile, but marmalade's easier to get ahold of. Far less bees involved if nothing else.)

So, onto this second movie, Paddington (Ben Whishaw) has gotten a more familiar with London, and with living in the city, and has made himself apart of the Brown family. It's his Aunt Lucy's (Imelda Staunton) birthday, and he's vowed to get her a great gift for her, a rare pop-up book showing many of the landmarks and streets of London. He has to get a job in order to get the book, which, is a bit struggle at first. Bears do not make good barbers apparently. However, after he's close to earning all the money, the book is stolen and Paddington is the main suspect. Sentenced to prison, the Browns, led by Henry & Mary (Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins) decide to begin investigating themselves, convinced that Paddington couldn't possibly have stolen the book. This leads to an interesting and funny scenario where they sneak into the apartment of a pretentious actor, Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant) who also has his eyes on the book, which unbeknownst to everyone else, includes a secret treasure map inside. Paddington meanwhile, spends his days befriending his fellow prisoners. It doesn't start off too well, as one red sock got him taken off laundry duty on the first day, but he eventually befriends the chef, Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) after teaching him how to make marmalade.

Pretty much the rest of the movie is the typical fun adventure twists and turns you'd see in a "Paddington" story, basically in much the same way the first film was, and that's fine enough for me. Casting Hugh Grant as a evil villain actor is almost too delightfully dastardly that it should be illegal, but of course, it totally works here. I don't get the over-enthusiasm for the "Paddington" films so far, but I certainly can't imagine any scenario where any reasonable person would dislike these films. They're lovely little tales about a Bear's adventures in the big city.


A CIAMBRA (2018) Director: Jonas Carpignano

★★★

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Okay, so there was this movie from a few years ago called "Mediterranea". It was an interesting debut feature from Director Jonas Carpignano that followed some immigrants from Burkina Faso who founds their way through three countries and then onto a raft in a the Mediterranean where he ends up living, basically as a refugee in Southern Italy as they struggles to survive in this new world, both literally and culturally. I enjoyed it quite a bit, although in hindsight, despite having written a review of it awhile back (Link Here) I was writing that review in the middle of a difficult time for me, as I had just recovered from spending a few months without a proper working computer, and to be honest, a few years later and having not revisited the film since, there's

Looking back on that review, I did end up mentioning a character named Pio (Pio Amato) a local young hustlers who sold, probably stolen electronics and other contraband to some of the locals and refugees. He was about nine years old and already a chronic smoker. Well, for Carpignano's second feature, "A Ciambra", or "The Ciambra", Pio is back, and is now the main character we follow, as he's now a 14-year-old street hustler, dealing with his family of thieves and burglars and other conman and hustlers. Apparently, he's sorta becoming Carpignano's Jean-Pierre Leaud? His Antoine, I guess. His character also originated in a short film too originally. So, yeah, he's more important than I recalled from the previous film.

So, who is Pio? Well, he's illiterate, he's a teenagers, he's a bit of a gangster. He's Romani most of all. The Romani are, basically another word for Gypsies; it's a little more specific than that, but, they're the Gypsies, and they're generally, fairly disliked in Europe, although in Carpignano's films, they are basically criminals, at least Pio's family is. Pio is still young enough to circumnavigate the multiple worlds of Gypsies, Romani and the other big group of the criminal underground, the local Calabrase, the one who runs and owns the criminal underworld.

The movie is as naturalistic as a documentary, which is probably the part of the movie that puts it a little bit above. Pio isn't an actor, and much of the side characters are his friends and family members. "A Ciambra" works best as a look inside this rarely-seen hidden world, and through the eyes of one it's youngest members. I compared the film to Truffaut earlier, but really, I think the better comparison might be the films of Hector Babenco, the great Brazilian director who also showed the forgotten underground class of kids and criminals in Brazil, with movies like "Pixote: The Law of the Weakest" or "Carandiru". To me, "A Ciambra" is ultimately a bit of a mess, which I think was kind of a mess. That's not a negative, this world and story should be messy, narrative-wise, I don't think it helps, but as a film that gives us a sense of the world, "A Ciambra" puts us right into this little corner of European poverty that you don't see on any of the postcards. I'm glad to see somebody trying to make films about these people and this world, and thankfully he's this good at it as well.


LA 92 (2017) Directors: Dan Lindsay & T.J. Martin

★★★★1/2

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2017 was the 25th Anniversary of the L.A. Riots. Actually, there's been several L.A. Riots over the years, but I'm of course talking about the last one, the big one. There were two major documentaries about the riots that hit movie theaters in the year, the first one was John Ridley's masterful "Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992". which detailed not only the riots, but the events that lead up to the riots. "LA 92", does much of the same thing, however the main difference between the two documentaries is that "Let It Fall", is more of a reflective, informational look back on the Riots, while "LA 92" feels like it's putting us directly into the middle of the riots, like we're a participant, engulfed in the smoke and chaos. 

Using old, often never-seen footage shot in the middle of the riots, "LA 92" documents those three days from when the trial ended with the shock result and with the aftermath after Rodney King famously asks why we all can't get along. It's not as immersive a history lesson, although it does technically begin with the original outrageous trial of Korean grocer Soon Ja Du, who was convicted of manslaughter in the murder of African-American teenager Latasha Harlins, who she thought was shoplifting. She only received Community Service from a white female judge. THen of course, Rodney King. "LA 92", takes footage shot before, during and after the riots. Newsreel footage, local footage, everything. Sometimes we're right in the middle of the riots, right at Florence and Normandie. We follow the officers as they head off and don't come to help and the riots and violence and destruction escalate. We go one from their, detailing the riots and incidents and minutia of the three days it took. 

63 deaths, thousands injured and millions in damage later, the rebuilding begins; somehow the city still stands for another day. After watching "LA 92", it didn't make me feel like I was revisiting that day; it made me feel like i was caught right in the middle of the riots and that I had been caught in the looting and violence itself. These are two similar documentaries on the same subject, but both of them have to be seen in order to get a full documented account of the events from all of these point of views. The L.A. Riots seem stuck in 1992 in the past, but they're as timely as ever and "LA 92", makes them seem realer than ever before, at least realer than those who only experienced them through the news footage of the time. That alone makes "LA 92" essential viewing. 


JANE (2017) Director: Brett Morgan 

★★★1/2

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One of the biggest snubs from last year's Oscars was the documentary "Jane", which was a heavy favorite to at least get a nomination only to suffer a similar fate to-, well, lately-it-seems, most documentaries that seem to be popular and well-liked, and didn't even receive a nomination. Honestly, it's one of those missed nominations I should've been able to predict and kicked myself for not predicting it, and that's irrelevant of what I actually think of the film, 'cause, well...- outside of the theory that the Documentary Branch has been weird/corrupted lately by those who hate popular documentaries, but-eh, can I ask a question? I know this'll be sacriligious to some but, coming into this documentary I had one thought that crossed my mind quite a bit, is Jane Goodall actually an interesting enough person for their to be a documentary about her? 

See, I had already seen one documentary about her a few years back. It was called "Jane's Journey", and-, I gave that film a harsh review. (Link here) And it's not that I didn't like her, I was familiar with her long before I saw that film and am more-than-familiar with her amazing achievements, I just questioned whether or not she was a compelling subject for a documentary. Based on that film, I said no, and I'm still convinced I'm wrong either. (For those wondering, no, I've never seen "Gorillas in the Mist", it's on my Netflix though; I will get to it eventually.) 

So, what's different about "Jane", the new Brett Morgan documentary? Well, for one, it's not just a biopic. "Jane's Journey" was admirable in it's portrayal of Jane Goodall, following her later in life, still working, still as honored and accomplished and witty as ever, still studying the chimpanzees, but basically it was telling us how great Jane Goodall is all the time, and there's nothing wrong with that, especially if it's an accurate portrayal of her, it's just not really compelling. "Jane", isn't about that woman. Compiling from hours and hours of previous unseen footage, "Jane" a documentation of the young Goodall, who was still basically a secretary as she went off and traveled into the jungles of Africa and turning into the chimpanzee whisperer that made her famous. Goodall is young, still in her twenties, a blonde beauty who's both amazed and startled that she's suddenly out here taking photos and watching how chimpanzees behave and act and for some reason she isn't fully aware of, they seem to be naturally drawn to her. 

She was Louis Leakey's secretary and just wanted something else from life than becoming a housewife back then. Now, she was documenting and changing our evolution of how we relate to our cousins the chimpanzee. It seems bizarre now, but back then, it was new and unusual for humans to just live and observe the species and try to relate and document them before. Usually, humans were more likely to dissect the species we studied than actually, well, studying them. Of course, perhaps it takes somebody with an adventurous yet empathic touch to recognize that. She wanted to go to the jungle and live like Tarzan, and there's an easy pun we can make here, but instead of doing that, she instead observed that chimpanzees also may live like humans, or simply redefine what chimpanzees live like. 

"Jane" also helps, not just from seeing this original old footage of her and her studies and the chimpanzee, but a wonderful Philip Glass score as well. I'm beginning to understand now why the cinematic fascination with Jane Goodall has continued to thrive even now. I'm still concerned about her fascination overall as an entertaining figure, but seeing her in this state and in action really helps this. "Jane" succeeds where "Jane's Journey" seemed to falter, but more-than-that, it works on it's own as a fascinating document on Goodall's achievements, by bringing us right onto her doorstep, seeing her in this new environment dominated by another species and infiltrating and becoming apart of it; that accomplishment of hers is fascinating. 


NOVITIATE (2017) Director: Maggie Betts

★★★★

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Just out of curiosity, can anybody remember the last time a nun was portrayed positively in a movie? Especially as a lead character? I was trying to remember while watching "Novitiate" at one point, and the best answer I could come up with a few good ones, Susan Sarandon's character in "Dead Man Walking". I guess Amy Adams's character is "Doubt", although that's more of a supporting role. There were a lot of supporting roles in the "Sister Act", but Whoopi Goldberg herself wasn't a nun. It feels like there used to be more positive characters in film, at least in American films that were nuns. They mention a few of them in "Novitiate", inspiration for some of the younger nuns who are first becoming postulates and then novices.

Bare with me, my intimate knowledge of the Catholic Church line of Progressions is a bit shaky; it's been awhile, but "Novitiate", is a detailed, intimate at, the beginning lives of being a nun, at a transitional time for the church. There's always transitional times for the Church, or attempts at one, but the one that's the focus here is Vatican II, or the Second Ecumenical Council. This was a Council put together by Pope John XXIII, and this conference announced quite a few changes for the church, a lot of which, people within the Church, were not particularly in favor of. Now, I don't know all the details of the changes and proclamations and recommendations, but if you just skimmed over some of these, you'd recognize them are fairly benign and logical or even obvious modernizing declarations of the church, but-eh, yeah, some of those details dealt with the way young nuns were taught and treated. Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo) has not particularly fond of these, in this story, and for a few years until, finally, she eventually was forced to put these changes in place.

I guess the protagonists of the film, is Sister Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), who's one of the few Sisters that did not grow up in a Catholic house. In fact, she didn't grow up with any religion. Now, you'd that make her naturally rebellious in this situation, but the intensity of the training is actually something that more often brings down the other Sisters who grew up entirely within the church, and soon become somewhat disillusioned during their training. Apparently, it's much harder to become a nun than it probably should've been at that time. No wonder every story I ever hear about the Catholic schools my grandparents went to talk about how mean they are, and that's a detriment to Sister Cathleen as well, 'cause she often gets in trouble for being too empathetic, or just simply questioning the roles of such things as the habits, or the stiff walking patters.

There is some lesbian subplots as well, which let's face it, yeah, especially when they were these young women, that were often simply, confused or unknowing about their sexuality and didn't exist in a world where they weren't exactly encourage to explore. More interesting to me, was also the conflict within the other nuns, who along with Reverend Mother were concerned with the supposed new declarations, because while their-, they're basically torturing these girls, but it's the Church they've known and grown up in and appreciate and joined for their own reasons, it's changing out from under the Vatican, as well as with this new generation of Sisters who are apart of that changing world. It's the era of movies, Elvis, soon, the Beatles, television for fuck's sake. With every advancement that bring the world closer together than it has before, the more religion and the belief in a higher power or two seems questionable.

There is a fascinating scene with Sister Catherine's mother Nora (Julianne Nicholson) who is vehemently anti-religious, and her confrontation with Reverend Sister is a fascinating contrast. Melissa Leo got some award considerations at a few Critics awards for this film, it's easy to see why. I was more interested in Maggie Betts's directing and script though that manages to feel intense, personal and claustrophobic. It's an incredibly confident and fascinating first feature by Maggie Betts, a very interesting young filmmaker who I'm interested to see what she'll do next. "Novitiate" is fascinating, frustrating and intense. Perhaps I shouldn't be too hopeful for future films with positive-portrayed nuns, they're far more interested when they're flawed and their faith is confronted, and "Novitiate", is one of the better American movies I've seen with that dynamic in awhile.


AMERICAN MADE (2017) Director: Doug Liman


★★★

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I've had a long time to collect my thoughts and try to figure out how to analyze "American Made", and yet, there doesn't seem to be an appropriate angle. Manohla Dargis's review mentions how Director Doug Liman's father, was famously one of the lawyers that investigated Ronald Reagan during the Iran-Contra affair, so the story of Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) obviously has some natural intrigue for him. "American Made" is basically the story of how Seal went from a TWA pilot to suddenly becoming hired by the CIA in order to become a drug smuggler for Manuel Noriega among others. The more you know about the whole mess of shit Reagan was doing in South America-, and he's not along, this was going on long before him and probably might still be going on to some degree,- you're forgiven if you come out of "American Made", with only a sketchy understand of the events and history of the time/area. That said, it feels a little weird to analyze the film from this perspective. It's not like Liman's saying anything about Seal or what America was doing, like Cruise, I suspect he took the job because, the story and movie sounded like a fun thing to play and do.

It's weird though, Liman is one of Hollywood's most stylistic filmmakers, and he's made more than his share of memorable, good movies, I'm still a huge fan of "The Bourne Identity" and I still can't believe how good "Edge of Tomorrow" came out, finding an interesting way to remake "Groundhog Day" with that one essentially. His breakout film strangely enough was the Jon Favreau-penned comedy "Swingers" which I've seen, and it still holds up pretty well, and he does a little bit of everything, "Fair Game", is a pretty good spy thriller that's not really much of an action movie, "Go", is an okay Tarantino-wannabe indy, but other than the fact that's he's mostly an action director, if not necessarily in subject matter, but in approach to the material, it's strangely hard to get a read on him as a director. He kinda reminds me of a David Fincher in that way, how he's really only as good as the material that's given to him, but you can still recognize his signature. That said, yeah, I think I can mostly dismiss this film as an entertaining Scorsese-esque biopic that's mostly just excuse to have Cruise play this supposedly really cool guy.

To be fair, Barry Seals is a cool guy on paper anyway. I'm sure there is a great film to be made about him and his exploits, flying plains for the Medellin cartel while getting bankrolled by the CIA while they're bankrolling the cartels, and all that craziness, but I don't think this is it. "American Made" is still a fun if empty ride that helps tell his story. The movie that the film mostly reminds me of is "Blow", which is also an empty but entertaining look at a real-life unusual drug smuggler's life. I like "American Made" better honestly, I recommend it if nothing else, for a fun couple hours, but that's about all it's worth.


THE SURVIVALIST (2017) Director: Steven Fingleton

★★★1/2


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Okay, so elephant in-, well, not in the room, but in my headspace that I want to deal with. Some people who've known me well, might be familiar with this, but-, the first feature-length screenplay I wrote was called “The Survivalist”. This film, is in no way related to that project, which I have, for a long time now have shelved permanently, and will hopefully never see any light of day, especially since it was a pretty lousy script; bad writing from a beginner writer that I would otherwise just want to forget existed. The only reason I may keep copies of it, is because I keep copies of everything. Other than that, I only mention it, 'cause it screws with my head a bit, and it might get in the way in parts of this review. For those curious, they have nothing other than the title in common with each other, not the plot, not the genre, literally, not even the same kind of survivalist, my story was about a modern-day guy who lived with the bare minimal of essentials, not some post-apocalyptic fable about a guy who's managed to find a plot of land in the middle of the woods and grow his own crop in a world where everybody's struggling to survive.


In fact, while were at it, I may have also said something like this before, but, I just don't get post-apocalyptic literature. Don't get it. Probably don't like it. I mean,- that's not true, I usually find that I like quite a few films and stories that take place in a world like that, including this film, but I recommending stuff on a measure of quality and craft over preference, but still though, I adore “A Quiet Place” for a recent one, but that was an interesting new take on the genre, one that I hadn't seen before. But goddamn it; every time I find somebody, especially an up-and-coming young filmmaker who seems to specialize in post-apocalyptic worlds and narratives, I keep wanting to shake them and insist they explain to me why exactly they look so drearily on the future? I mean, my life sucks but even I don't see a future that's this bad or drastic? Maybe I should, maybe I just watched too much “Star Trek”, and usually find hope and promise in the future more likely and hopeful than nuclear annihilation, or whatever it is that causes the world to end in these things. I know, this kind of future is just as likely, I've seen “The Trigger Effect”, but I don't know, this general obsession that's out there with this genre...- It- it's so bleak. It wears me down, and at some point, I feel like it's more fetishistic than actual fascination and hypothesizing about such a future. I certainly get that feeling with “The Survivalist”, and after seeing some of Writer/Director Stephen Fingleton's short films, yeah, post-apocalyptic material is a fascination with him. I'm sure there's a reason why it connects so much with him, and he's good at telling it here, but boy it feels tiresome to me; like I'm consistently revisiting and watching more-and-more films in this genre, and I'm just not relating. I know it seems like the end of the world is coming, and perhaps I'm too hopefully despite overwhelming evidence otherwise, but Jesus-, anyway, I know I start to worry when every pitch meeting feels like it begins with, “It starts after the end of the world...”.

Anyway, the end of the world in this movie, basically involves three characters, the titular Survivalist (Martin McCann) who was somehow survived, whatever-the-hell has happened and now, and has secluded himself in an area, and a mother and daughter, Kathryn and Milja (Olwen Fouere and Mia Goth) who have come to beg to live with them, in exchange for trade some of the skills they have. What are those skills, um, well they can help with some of the farming and cooking and hunting, and yeah, sex as well, but it is an interesting dynamic overall. The biggest appeal of the movie to me is the acting; these three actors go through a lot and put themselves in some vulnerable places and give some really brave performances. I like Fingleton's directing as well. It's not just a locked-in story either between these three, there are several outside attackers that we do see and fear and they effect their choices and decisions as well. "The Survivalist", I think metaphorically is just a tale of trust, and whether or not three people can actually have it in each other, in a situation where every move each of them try to make is literally life or death for them, and possibly for each other. It's something I personally would go out of my way for, but I can see why this movie got so much cult acclaim. 

Fingleton's a talented young filmmaker who's got some good ideas and I'd like to see them evolve over the years from now. And hopefully, his next films will be just as thrilling and intriguing, but that they don't remain so apocalyptic in the future.


SCORE: A FILM MUSIC DOCUMENTARY (2017) Director: Matt Schrader

★★★1/2


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So, there's this dear friend of mine I've known since high school, Melissa. Hey Mel! (Waving from afar) She was, and still is, a great musician. Even back in high school she could play several instruments and learn how to play them quicker than most, and she's recorded stuff here and there and worked with other good musicians between stints with her regular job, which she's also really incredible at. Anyway, we had lost track after high school for awhile, and then sorta randomly I ran into her again when I was in film school. I wasn't overly surprised to see her there, although I was surprised to find out that she also was now a film major. I mean, sure, most artistic people try multiple of creativity over their career, even I tried being a musician for awhile back in high school, which mostly consisted of one broken guitar string and 200 pages of bad poetry disguised as lyrics, (Eh, maybe five or ten of those were decent) but I was a little taken back seeing her in film school. She was practically a musical savant, it seemed a little like,- I don't know, like Michael Jordan playing baseball? That's an extreme comparison, but...- anyway, I'm getting off-track. Anyway, we ended up in a few classes together and she had this habit of sitting in a particular corner of the classroom auditorium. I always like to sit up front and let the movie flow over me, but she found this back-corner of the auditorium and  she always claimed, correctly, that because of the way the speakers were she could hear the movie better from there, and from there. Afterwards, no matter the film we were watching, when we'd meet up after class and talk, almost always, the first thing she'd talk about was the film's musical score. It's her, she's a musician; and it's not like she was bad at filmmaking; I think she'd be pretty good at it if she wanted to, but she's a musician. She's my first phone call if I ever do need a score or a song for a project of mine, but that's her focus and where her passion lies. I always admired and was partially envious of that.

I know my strengths as a filmmaker and as a critic, as well as my weaknesses, and one of my big ones is music. Especially film scores. There's a reason I don't/haven't give out OYL Awards for them yet, and it's not because I don't think it's a skill that deserves to be honored; it's that I just don't think I'm good or knowledgeable enough to judge the craft adequately. I'm aware score is there and it's importance in a film, I definitely have some favorite scores and composers but yeah, it's rarely the first thing I notice or criticize or judge a film by; in fact I can't even remember the last time I ever even mentioned a film's score in a review of mine. I'm sure I have at some point but my focus, honestly, part of me thinks if I am paying too much attention or notice to a film's score than there must be something wrong with the film if that's the first thing I notice; I know that's not true at all, but it is a thought that crosses my mind occasionally.  All these and several others are why I appreciate documentaries like “Score: A Film Music Documentary”, if for nothing else but as a reminder for me of just how amazing and talented the composer that create film scores are. The documentary itself is standard fluff but there's some nice behind-the-scenes stories and showing of the creative process and mindsets of some of the great composers of today and the past. It's got the usual talking heads, Leonard Maltin for historical exposition and background, there's a lot of talk about John Williams and Bernard Hermann and Ennio Morricone among others. We see some of the biggest composers of the day working and how they work. I like the story Mark Mothersbaugh tells about having written the theme to “Rugrats” on a toy piano that he returned to the store afterwards. 

It's interesting how they talk a bit about how Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer and more recently Trent Reznor started out in the rock'n'roll world before finding their way to film scoring, although they completely skipped over Mothersbaugh being one of the main members of Devo, strangely enough.
I do think I learned a lot. I mean, I know what a musical motif is and how it's used and I mean, I did know about the process of creating film scores, in theory, but I do like the little details they show. Like which studio they prefer to record in and why or who composes and who likes to work in a booth, or how some of the composers can create music using some avant-garde or obscure intruments, the jingle bells that were strung up and put together to play different notes was amazing to see. That's the kind of stuff that not only takes time and effort, but you have to really have an ear and desire to make the best music. I'm sure musicians could easily follow it, and be amazed on their own levels, but for somebody not musically-inclined like me, it's the same feeling I get when I watch Bob Ross painting (Another art medium that I'm not talented or qualified enough to completely judge accurately); I've seen him paint enough, and subconsciously I know what he's doing and how he's doing it and why it works, but to me it looks like the strangest collection of random brushstrokes, until suddenly, “Holy shit; that's a tree!” It's a bunch of people in a room getting their instruments ready and a composer writing a bunch of sheet music and a mixer mixing the sounds, and then, “WOW! Hans Zimmer's score for the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies!!!!” That's what it's like to me, but I'm glad documentaries like these exist to remind me and show me just how great film scores can be.

Also, for some reason Moby was interviewed in this to talk about how music works. I'm not criticizing or anything, he was fine as an interviewee, in fact now that they mention it, I'm kinda surprised since Moby, as far as I know, hasn't done a movie score yet. I actually think he would probably be a pretty good and interesting film composer. Still though, kinda not sure exactly why he was in the movie. I mean I do know that his music's been used in a lot of movies, especially his “Play” album but that's not quite be a film composer-, you know what, nevermind; I'm probably just overthinking that.   


BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR STORY (2017) Director: Alexandra Dean

★★★★

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I'm not gonna say that I have an outstanding or exceptional knowledge of all the classic Golden Age of Hollywood starlets, but I like to think I know quite a bit about most of the major ones, or at the least have seen enough or are familiar with a decent enough portion of their work to discuss them. Hedy Lamarr though is one that unfortunately has mostly slipped past me. I've seen "Ecstasy" the infamous film she made in Europe which she had both, one or cinema's earliest explicit nude scenes, as well as the infamous scene where it seems like she's at-least simulating an orgasm. (BTW, she was 17 at the time of that movie.) Honestly, it's not that good a movie, but it was infamous. I knew she eventually left for Hollywood and became a pretty big star in America, but I haven't seen most of her films, but I just haven't gotten around to "White Cargo" or "Algiers" or "Boom Town" or any of her other films. That, and I remember some blurb about her being a scientist that invented a better torpedo or something. 

So-eh, yeah, "Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story", was a film I was definitely interested in, but also came in a bit blinder to than most biopics about major Hollywood figures. Screening in theaters briefly before airing on PBS's "American Masters", "Bombshell", a title that some accredit to be given to her first, details her unique and unusual life and career. For one thing, how she managed to escape her original husband, who basically kept her captive in her home as a trophy wife, which included getting disguised as a maid and having a lookalike pose as her until she snuck out. When she got to Hollywood, she changed her name and became famous, but she also got typecasted pretty badly, only playing stunning or exotic beauties, rarely getting a chance to stretch. That might be partly why she had a strange hobby as an inventor. 

Hedy Lamarr actually was a scientist who, unbeknowst-to-her at-the-time, basically invented modern communication technology. Literally, the internet would not exist with her. She co-invented a torpedo that could be remote controlled to change frequencies, the way a radio can have it's stations changed, so that after it's been launched, it can be controlled to hit a moving target that's no longer's at the original position. This was a breakthrough in remote communications technology. Of course, the military didn't official buy her product, but they replicated it anyway and the same concept has gone on to revolution everything. 

That's the other thing that I recall people saying about her, that she was incredibly smart. And not, like, the way people talk about how Marilyn Monroe was smart but, she was legit one of the smartest people in Hollywood. She also kinda got caught up in the glamour of Hollywood despite the fact that, she probably liked acting the least of anybody. She spent much of her adult life away from the public, but also obsessed with her looks and getting plastic surgery, which, she also came up with groundbreaking advances in field. Anything she did or could do, she would pretty much reinvent. Invent, being the keyword. Decades after her torpedo, she began getting the recognition she deserved in technology circles. She came about in a world where women mattered for their looks over their brains and she was cursed by beauty. And acting seems like something she was only marginally in to begin with, but she found a career and a way out with it. Still, it's hard to think of Hedy Lamarr after this documentary without wondering what might've happened if she were around today. Perhaps she could've refined that process that turned Coca-Cola into a capsule (Seriously she invented that too.) or revolution and captivate the world in some other way. 

"Bombshell...", brings back Hedy Lamarr, often through her own words with some long-lost interview tapes being the catalyst of the film, along with some talking heads, including the last film appearance of Robert Osborne, the only Turner Classic Movies host. 


DINA (2017) Director: Antonio Santini & Dan Sickles

★★★1/2

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For much of "Dina", I wasn't entirely sure or aware that I was watching a documentary. I'm not sure whether or not that's a good thing in this case, but it definitely makes it compelling. It also makes it, well, unsettling. The "Dina" is Dina Buno, a chunky young woman who's got some issues. She's OCD, obsessive-compulsive, and she's developmentally disabled and has had quite a dark and troubling past, especially with relationship. She's currently a Wal-Mart greeter and the film follows her relationship with her fiance, Scott Levin, a shy introvert who's got Asperger's Syndrome and lives with his mother.

They're the centerpiece, or at least it seems like they are, of this community of eccentric people on the outskirts of Philadelphia. The movie is shot rather-, well, it' s- it's hard to explain. Like, it's an episodic documentary, the kind you'd probably expect from, perhaps the Masley Brothers, but, it feels like a genuine rom-com that you'd expect to find playing at some lesser-Slamdance festival. It's a strange combination of setting and observation. It's not like they simply edited the footage together to create a story about a couple building up to a wedding, of course they did, but it was shot so loving and tenderly. It's almost like the filmmakers gone their initial insights from having seen Dina's life already and were carefully choosing and picking the days that were most worth remembering, like in "Defending Your Life". At least, for most of the movie anyway.

It's worth getting used to the strange and awkward conflict of styles as the more we observe, the more fascinating these people become, and when it's finally revealed, some of the hardships, that Dina's gone through, and I do mean hardships. There's clearly a care taken in about Dina from Directors Santini & Sickles, the documentary duo who have a fascination with unique outsiders who strive to and succeed at living their own lives, overcoming their complications that the world has thrown at them. "Dina" is one small story about people like that. Their partly in their own world that they've created and yet, they find a way to become apart of the rest of the world.

I'm still not sure how I feel about their approach, but I can't deny that by the end of the movie, I felt and cared for Dina, and wanted to know that she was okay and that her wedding went off well and that her and Steve were still together. I guess it was successful on that note, and I certainly can't imagine liking Dina more with some variation of a more conventional documentary approach telling her story. One of the more original and unique films I've seen in a while.


EAGLES OF DEATH METAL: NOS AMIS (MY FRIENDS) (2017) Director: Colin Hanks

★★★

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Until now, I had never head of Eagles of Death Metal. So you'll have to forgive me if my knowledge of their music is weak or uninformed. Thankfully, the movie isn't about their music anyway. Well, it is a little, and from what I can tell..., and I'm not a metal guy so take my opinion here with a grain of sale, but it's seems okay, I like the ones that have more of a dance beat dance to them and seem a little more new wave inspired, but the movie is about the friendship of the members of the band, and then, it's about their claim to fame outside of this band. They were the band that was playing in Paris and were attacked by the ISIL terrorists that killed 89 people and injured several others. One of the multiple locations that was hit that night, was the arena they were performing in. Before that night, they were a pretty fun-loving group of guys and a fun-loving band in general. After the attack, well, they didn't change that. They took a break and were definitely shaken. The movie is centered around their first return to Paris since the attack nines months later. 

So, I live in Las Vegas, and about a year and a half later, we're still somewhat recovering from a similarly violent terrorist attack that took place on the Las Vegas Strip, at a country music concert festival; I knew some people that survived that attack, and they've still a little shaken up about it. I can't imagine what it feels like for the people in attendance at the Bataclan that night. The documentary gives us a glimpse of that, along with a brief history of the band and of course interviews with the band members, as well as several others, many of whom were there that night and their lives changed and effected forever. The gruesome details of the incident from the witnesses as well as the band, are just gruesome. I mean, this was a slaughter. It was a planned militarized ground attack and some of the people who survived hid under dead bodies in order to survive. This was traumatic for any or all involve and I certainly don't know how a band like Eagles of Death Metal, would approach the experience. 

I guess. I actually don't learn too much about their music, but I do observe the tight friendship of the band members, especially Jesse Hughes and Scott Homme. Homme wasn't at the concert that night, but he helped the eccentric Jesse through the grief and PTSD of the night. That's probably the main crux of the movie. It's not a satisfying film necessarily for those seeking out first-hand accounts or explanations or reasons for the incident to have happened, of course trying to find any of that in any senseless act of terror is like trying to find a needle in a house full of needles. Ultimately, the movie is about this band's ability to continue on and perform again and even returning to Paris for a performance after being apart of such a senseless tragedy. 

"Eagles of Death Metal (Mon Amis)" marks Colin Hanks's second documentary feature as Director, after "All Things Must Pass", curiously another film about music, that one being about the rise and fall of Tower Records. I guess I'd prefer that movie 'cause of familiarity to the subject matter if nothing else. I wish there was more to this movie though; I think it tried to fit too much into the film and didn't always make clear choices, but-, I can forgive that in this situation, but a little  more focus would be preferable. That said, I just wasn't as effected by the movie as I feel I needed to be. I'll recommend it, but I personally had a hard time connecting with the film. Maybe it's 'cause I'm not familiar with the band, maybe it's that I'm not certain about how to react or understand the tragedy, but the movie was a struggle for me, personally to connect with it. Maybe it's the band themselves, Scott Homme does seem like a bit of strange character to begin with it who might not be the most appealing subject for a documentary. Maybe it's more a necessary film than an enjoyable one, but that's enough for me. 

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