Friday, March 12, 2021


I've decided to make changes to this blog, as well as my personal life. It's not something that'll be obvious, but I'm clearly not posting as much as I used to and frankly, I want to change priorities in my life. It's not that I won't be publishing here, I will, including my Oscar nominations predictions and analysis which I'll be working on as soon as I'm done with this post, but I'm shifting my priorities. I won't be posting commentaries as often I use to, which to be frank, there's not as much out there that I want to say anyway anymore; I do feel the desire to, I will, but lately, I feel like they've been more forced then I want and frankly I just want to focus more on other work. If something happens that I feel like I have something to say about or just something I want to put out there, I will, but this will not be a focus of the blog anymore.

As well as my health. I've had some health issues lately, including being hospitalized with COVID, but also I have to focus more on my health in general, and I haven't been. It's something I gotta keep up with more then I have, and I also want time to focus on other writings of mine. If I'm gonna focus on those things, then I have to move energy away from this blog. This is probably why these movie review blogs have just gotten way too long these days. 

Anyway, let's get to the reviews. We've got a ton this time around, which is also something I'm gonna curb in the future, putting a movie limit on these review posts; I think that's proven to be long overdue at this point. 

NOMADLAND (2020) Director: Chloe Zhao


Um, so this is the movie that's garnering much of the awards attention this year, "Nomadland". Ummm, okay. It's kind of an odd choice of film to be so highly praised. Now, granted, 2020 was the year the film industry basically died due to the pandemic so I probably should expect some more unusual choices to get in this year, 'cause they're the ones that could get released this year, but still, eh, this one's unusual in my mind. I'm trying to remember the last time something like this was really in the Best Picture discussions. 

Well, I guess I have to describe what this movie is; it's one of those genres of American indies, that's, essentially the film about the, well, nomad. It kinda falls into categories like the road trip film, where we see a main character criss-crossing their way through the American landscape, and meeting people along the way, but it's not done in a manner that's really like that, it's more of a look at the struggles of working or living on the road. At least, that's what I think its supposed to be. The main character Fern (Frances McDormand) we're informed is a widow who's town of Empire, Nevada, has become a literal ghost town after the Gypsum Plant closed. That- is something that's actually true; there are lots of places like that in America, where the main factory or plant was basically the town, and when that industry leaves, the town is often so small that it can't really retain itself. Nevada, fun fact, has more ghost towns like then any other state in the union; there's a few down here in Clark County from the old west days, but most of them are up north though, and they're still increasing in number to an extent. 

So Fern, packs her things into storage and takes her van and starts to head out. Where? Well, the titular "Nomadland" this semi-recurring seasonal loop of local travelers and n'er-do-wells who basically live out of there van. They travel around the country keeping odd jobs, periodically, like working at Amazon during the Holiday rush or some of the spring festivals or harvests, or wherever they can work enough to stay for a little while. 

This is kinda where I'm debating with myself a lot here, 'cause- well, I-eh, um- I don't quite know how to explain this, but this movie,- hmmm. Okay, perhaps, I should now talk about the filmmaker. Chloe Zhao is a very talented Chinese filmmaker whose emigrated to America for most of her work actually. She made two of the most intriguing feature films in recent years. "Songs My Brother Taught Me" I like a lot; it was a film that took place on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and was about two teenage siblings who struggled to get by and take of themselves and their family after their father's passing. Her next feature, "The Rider" a lot of people liked even more; I know some people who thought it was one of the very best films of 2018, and you know, it didn't make my list, but it could've; it was also a really stirring neorealist piece that was also around the Lakota Sioux area of Pine Ridge, that followed a cowboy who was trying to go on with his life after a serious career-ending head injury. I admired those films for their depictions of unusual, in some cases, real life people and showing off an aspect and peoples of America that frankly rarely are rarely shown in America. They used few known or trained actors and they evoked an incredible world and mood. She even managed different genres, with "The Rider" being a neowestern and "Songs..." being a family drama, that steered near toward epic territory. 

So, this isn't outside her wheelhouse; or anything. This isn't anything unexpected or out of the norm from her at first glance. She has a couple major actors now, McDormand as well as another traveler, Dave played by David Straitharn, but most of the cast are actual travelers around the America West. This underbelly of the houseless who traverse the country at regular intervals, usually where there might be some work, trying to get by. And the thing is, um, I kinda got the feeling that Zhao was romanticizing this a bit..... (Cringy shoulder shrug). And like, not in a good way, like, in the kinda bad yuppie way where rich people, or people from another economic culture would romanticize aspects and depictions of poverty as though it was ideal. Maybe, I'm alone in this; I never felt it with her other two films; they felt more curious and seemed to strive to depict realities of America, like the neorealists do, but I don't know. Here..., hmm, and I don't think it's that she used some big movie stars; McDormand is perfectly cast and she's one of the best actresses alive and she's often depicting working class characters over the years; she's won two Oscars doing that. Hell, my favorite movie that this film reminds me of, is a very obscure indy film called "Trucker" and that movie had many big stars in it, most notably Michelle Monaghan in the lead role; if that movie was more well-known Jim Gaffigan would've made his Halle Berry in "Monster's Ball", "Why doesn't she just be a model" joke about it. Really, I think the problem is that, this movie doesn't have that sense of poverty being a thing that you don't want to strive for. 

At least, for most of the movie I felt that way. 

By the end of the film, after we start to meet Fern's family and eventually, we get this wonderful conversation near the end of the movie Fern has with a fellow nomad, played by non-actor Bob Wells, about their shared grief over the loss of loved ones, that's when I kinda first started seeing this movie as a character piece. Up until then though, I- well, I kinda struggled with this one, and on a second viewing, I actually ended up appreciating the film more. I have a feeling that I am the toughest mainstream critic of this film and that perhaps I am undervaluing it and misreading Zhao's underlying intentions

There's some beautiful shots of the American landscape here, the cinematography is quite special and I do think Chloe Zhao is a very talented director, who can come up with really interesting stories to tell, but this was the first time I really question her eye for story here. Her characters mostly deal with grief and loss, but even with everything, it feels less urgent here. Perhaps its because we don't really get to know this character 'til the end; her other films we firmly meet these characters as they're starting to go through this grief and they act out it more obvious ways, and "Nomadland" is missing that aspect. 

We meet Fern, firmly in the middle of her grief and we only really get one obtuse flashback scene where she's a former teacher who's looking for work and being told to consider retirement. That, and one conversation about tutoring we see her have with a former pupil who she helped teach Shakespeare to. She didn't come off as a mysterious character I was intrigued by, I was far more intrigued by several of the non-actors and their stories and whatnot, but instead she came as somebody who had basically chosen to withhold everything and go more inward upon herself. She even only reluctant kinda starts a flirtation with Dave and that ultimately is doomed to not go over well, especially after he decides to head back to live with his son James (Tay Straitharn, David's son). 

I'm gonna recommend "Nomadland" for the real-life look into this unknown and forgotten look at a very strained aspect of Modern America, but this is the first time I feel like I've been underwhelmed in Zhao's work. I feel like there's a good film somewhere here, but it's not quite complete yet, and I'm kinda surprised that among her films so far, this is the one that's really taking off.

MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM (2020) Director: George C. Wolfe



The second of Denzel Washington's ambitious effort to bring August Wilson's plays to the big-, well streaming screen nowadays I guess, is going incredibly well. "Fences" was Washington's best performance in years and brough Viola Davis an Oscar. And proved that if he wanted to, Denzel Washington could also direct pretty well. This time around, he's staying on strictly as a producer as he tackles "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom", a fascinating look at the early days of the record industry and arguably both the birth and the death of traditional black music, at least the blues music that hadn't yet been corrupted and codified by White America. 

Ma Rainey (Davis) was the Mother of the Blues, one of the biggest stars on the Vaudeville circuits and was one of the original Rabbit Foot Minstrels.You gotta remember, recorded music was still a new phenomenon in the early 20th Century, and while she was a huge name in Black circles, it was white record producers who were out trying to create and sell both music and just time in the studios. At this point, she made more money for the studios then anybody and basically could set her own rules and standards, despite the producers Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) trying desperately to impose their schedule and will, Ma Rainey knows she's in charge and can literally order anything. If she wants her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) to record the opening, they're gonna go until he can record the opening of the song correctly, even if he struggles with a debilitating stammer. If she won't sing without her Coca-Cola, they don't sing 'til they get her a coke. If she wants her flirtatious little groupie of a lover Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) to be around in the recording, she gonna be around, even if she has nothing to do but to flirt with the trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman).

Most of the play really isn't about Ma as she records the titular song. It's mostly about everybody else waiting around for her, particularly her backing band who have quite a lot to say to each other. There's a lot of disagreements and discussions between them, but the majority are between Levee and Cutler (Colman Domingo). Actually, it's really between Levee and everyone else. Levee is the kind of knucklehead who thinks he's a huge bigshot when he isn't and he's just too old and not talented enough to keep having that behavior being tolerated. He's got talented, and it seems like the producers agree as they want to record some of his interpretations of Ma's songs. They even like some of his completely original songs, but Ma's determined to sing her versions, but that, and nothing else seems to mind Levee, who's determined that he'll just get and start a band later. Meanwhile, he picks fights with everybody else, especially with Cutler and the pianoplayer Toledo (Glynn Turman), the more religious member of the group. Mostly though, they're just trying to get him to understand the concept of playing the music the boss tells him to play. 

It's not that complex accept on the surface, but on a greater scale it's showing this rare brief instance at the beginning of recording sound where the white producers were basically beholden to the black artists and the beginning of how they eventually appropriated their music, quite literally, to their own and made more money. "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is a tour de force of great performers performing a great play and it doesn't try to be much else, which is what makes it great. It's marks Chadwick Boseman's final performance, one that apparently only he knew about being his last, and it's one of his very best. The guy's over forty, dying of cancer and seems completely believable as somebody who's probably at least, ten-to-fifteen years younger. Viola Davis among others also gives one of her best performances as well. August Wilson wrote some of the best and most important reflections on African-America lives in the 20th Century and it's frankly long overdue that most of these stories are brought onto the big screen (Or, I guess the small screen of Netflix). I guess if I had to compare, I probably prefer this to "Fences" just because it's a little more fluid as a movie, but this collection should be looked upon as one of the future great important collections of African-American art in filmmaking when it's ever completed and thankfully, we're a long way from that happening. 

SOUL (2020) Director: Pete Doctor; Co-Director: Kemp Powers


Huh. So, Disney and Pixar have made a, death movie? At least that was one of my first thoughts, as the movie's narrative began to develop and emerge. That's different for them, I think. Well, maybe not actually; I can't think of any particular Disney or Pixar film where the main character dies off-hand, but it's not like death has never been brought up or discussed. Even outside evil villain demies, emotional death has had a presence in their films since Bambi's mother was killed. More recently, "Up" has become synonymous with not only a character's death, but for being a movie about dealing with grief. 
So, okay Disney and Pixar aren't afriad of dealing with death as a subject matter, but is "Soul" an animated kids film about death from them? Well, I wouldn't put it past the great Pete Doctor, the incredible writer/director/producer of "Soul", but going over his films, particularly his features, he's usually making movies, about life. Life and how great living is. Hell, he made "Up", but his best film is "Inside Out", and that movie is a kaleidoscope of emotional turmoil and it gets me every time. I'm still at awe about how he made me cry so many tears of joy in a film that's about how good and important it is, to be sad sometimes. And "Soul" is also about being alive. Actually, in hindsight, the movie that "Soul" most reminds me of is, eh, one of the greatest movies ever made, Wim Wenders "Wings of Desire". Instead of angels wishing upon a world that they observe over, we get two lost souls struggling to reach Earth. Joe (Jamie Foxx) is a struggling jazz pianist who takes a job working as a Middle School Music professor. He doesn't hate it, but it's not his dream job by any means. His family loves that he's getting stuff like health insurance and pensions but Joe still wants to perform with the greats. He gets a chance with a connection to sax great Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) gives him a last-second gig. He's so excited that he doesn't look where he's going and he ends up dead. Well, not quite dead; he's in a hospital but essentially dead. He's in a waiting room area for "The Great Beyond" as it's called. He tries to escape and kinda finds a way as he's confused for a mentor in the "The Great Before" where he helps mentor a young sole to help find their personality, which is represented on these badges they get before heading off to Earth to find a body. He gets assigned 22 (Tina Fey) a very old soul who's had a who's who of the most important people to ever live as mentors, but completely uninterested in heading to Earth. Joe however wants to get back to Earth, an extreme rarits and the curiousity of this behavior leads 22 to help him. 

In an otherworldly realm between the human and spiritual planes of existence, they get a guide named Moonwind (Graham Norton) who travels the sands of this world on a ship that seems built out of old remnants of the '60s and plays "Subterranean Homesick Blues", while it saves lost souls who haunt this part of the otherworld when they become way too obsessed with their "Sparks" as their often called. Those same passions that 22 just outright lacks. He finds an opening and both 22 and Joe head down, but through a mixup, 22 ends up in Joe's body and Joe in another body and they have to work together and strive to manipulate each other in order to be on time for the gig as they have to get ready for that, and find Moonwind's body on Earth to lead to another rare sliver of a portal. Meanwhile, 22 and Joe both start to experience the world in different ways. 22 experiences it for the first time while Joe struggles to real her in and not have his body overtaken by 22's newfound desire to want to be human. They also have their own little realizations and challenges through this, like when 22 has to confront Joe's mother Libba (Phylicia Rashad) about Joe's desire to just play jazz music. Joe's both teaching his world to 22 but 22 through living Joe's world, starts to drop her cynicism for humanity. 

I won't go into much more details about what happens from here. It's already a bit too Charlie Kaufman trying to write "All of Me", but I like the idea of the other realm struggling with their feelings towards humanity; that's always been a fascinating subject to me; the idea that humanity is a goal of an experience that those in the more pleasurable other worlds would be jealous of and want to experience is captivating to me, and "Soul" does a great job with this. It's not quite "Wings...", but for a Disney-fied version of that narrative, well, it's certainly better then "City of Angels". I don't think it's perfect, but I liked it a lot, and I cried at the end. Fine, it's manipulative as all Pixar films are, but they're so good at this. Doctor is particular is an incredible visual idealist. The contrasts between the animation styles between the real world of a busy New York City with the odd translucent blues and purples and more interesting stylistic choices is at first shocking and simultaneously stunning. He used a similarly jarring shift of styles of animation in "Inside Out" at one point, and here the contrast is as inspiring as it is experimental. I particularly liked how the souls feel like they were influenced by the tree spirits in "Princess Mononoke". 

There's also some great performances here. I didn't recognize either Jamie Foxx or Tina Fey and their voice work is stunning here. I also liked Rachel House's work as Terry the accountant for The Great Beyond who's the only one who's discovered that Joe's off and the only one who seems to care. I find myself more inspired by "Soul" then I probably like it but I do like it a lot. I personally probably wanted just a little more tightening up of the world of spiritual worlds and realms narratively, but these are nitpicks here. Little surprised that a movie called "Soul" is mainly focus in jazz music and is scored mostly by industrial rock musicians, and yeah, there's a lot of different types of music in this film as well; this is one of those movies that makes a very good argument that their should be a Music Supervisor or a more generic "Use of Music" category at the Oscars, but there's a lot going on here and I think it's just enough for kids to follow these, otherwise kinda dark and existentialistic materials for kids. I'd probably enjoy this film more if I was younger, but as an adult I appreciate it a lot. 

MINARI (2020) Director: Lee Isaac Chung


If I'm being completely honest, up until now I'd been fairly underwhelmed by this year's apparent group of Oscar contenders. I'm not terribly surprised by that, since this is just a strange year for movies in general, but I thought I'd be more with the, on the surface, more interesting, obtuse and, for lack-of-a-better-word, indy collection of narrative films that managed to finish and somehow by hook or by crook, sneak into this year's collection of the so-called best films of the year, but . "Minari" is one of the first ones though that I did truly find inspiring and compelling. It's the first feature I've seen from Asian-American filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung, and it tells a quiet, patient tale of a Korean family's struggle to adapt to several life-changing moves, including a literal move, from California to a large mobile home in Arkansas, where the family patriarch Jacob (Steven Yeun) is intent on building a small garden/farm on the land he just purchased, hoping to begin to grow Korean vegetables in America. 

This takes some work, and it's not an easy start. For one thing, they live in a mobile home in a part of the country that now sees tornado on a somewhat-regular basis. Both parents, still have to work a job separating baby chicks; this especially frustrates Jacob's wife Monica (Yeri Han).

The movie really focuses on their youngest son David (Alan S. Kim) their young seven-year-old whose both trying to begin his independent tantrum streak as an elementary school student, while also not only getting used to a new school, and an entirely new culture which isn't necessarily kind, but also, getting used to his Korean grandmother Soonja (YOUN Yuh-jung). She's traveled from Korea to watch the kids, David and her older sister Anne (Noel Cho). Most of the real meat of the movie, which is mostly shown through David's perspective is basically him trying to get along with his grandmother and the subtle, loving friendship they have as they both struggle with this new condition and learning to cope with it, and each other. It's actually quite sweet when David isn't hurting himself of otherwise being a brat, eventually they start to become major parts in each other lives, almost like a new front in the house against the parents who are still constantly fighting between themselves, sometimes out in the open, sometimes silently. 

It's hard to describe "Minari" in some ways it's episodic and expected narratively, even when its not expected, you know the kinds of cringe you gotta get through, like when they all decide to start going to the local church and try to fit in and make friends. It doesn't come at you in expected movie ways though. Conflict feels like it getting setup all the time, but its often avoided or drifting away; in fact, conflict not used as conflict but as steps in the evolution of these characters as they grow and evolve into this world. It's emotionally stirring and genuinely refreshing to see our expectations undermined. This is how slice of life narrative, as well as most fish-out-of-water stories should be told. There's wonderful performances all around, especially YOUN Yuh-jung as the Grandmother who manages to be an old school hardass and a generous and understanding nurturer, especially to David. Perhaps this is one of those rare family films that actually like it's about a real family. I don't know enough about Chung's earlier work to know where this seems placed in his ouevre, but I'm looking forward to diving in now; I want to hear both what else he has to say and what else he's said before now. 

ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI... (2020) Director: Regina King



I think at some point every writer, especially any writer with any fascination with playwriting at all, eventually comes up with an idea for a story about famous people sitting in a room and talking to each other. I knew a few people who've done stories like this, and I've thought about it occasionally. Sometimes these ideas are more contrived then others, (They're all contrived of course) but the best of these are so beautifully contrived that you just want to believe that they really did happen. Perhaps it's for the soul, the philosophical soul that we want things like these to have happened. In that respect, it's no surprise to me that Regina King chose "One Night in Miami...", the Kemp Powers stage play to be her first directorial feature. She's been directing a lot more then we realize, mostly in television up until now; of course, she's also been acting for a lot longer then we realize. Now, every award show basically recognizes the fact that Regina King should be honored for everything that's remotely good that she's in, but I don't think a most people realize exactly how long she's actually been around. She was a regular on "227", like, every year of the series, before she ever made her feature film acting debut, which is frickin' "Boyz N the Hood"!!! She's quietly had one of the greatest acting careers for the last three decades-, no longer then three decades, and that fact makes it a little more shocking that she's only now gotten a shot at directing a feature film. 

Despite all I've said, I'm still a little surprised that this is the project she picked. Not sure why honestly; I guess it's just that I never thought this would be the kind of subject Ms. King would have chosen, but I don't know; perhaps it's just that this is a masculin film. There's barely a female character in "One Night in Miami..." not that it needs one, and I'm certainly not complaining; it's one of the best films of the year, so yeah, if she finds a project to direct next time that's just as good, it could be a cast of amoebas for all I care. 

The night in Miami, is February 25th, 1964, the night Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) became the youngest Heavyweight Champion in the world after Sonny Liston (Aaron D. Alexander) didn't come out for the seventh round. Most of the movie takes place in the hotel room at the Hampton Inn, and after the fight, he's brought a few friends over for a small celebration. Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), spokesman for the Nation of Islam of course, not a surprise to anybody who knows what happens next in Cassius's life, Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), the biggest name in team sports at the time as the dominant Cleveland Browns running back and one of the most political figures as well, right at the beginning of his film career, as well as a brief respite as a boxing commentator, and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr. in a particularly special performance from him) one of the greatest singers of all time, and one of the biggest pop stars of the days and one of the greatest and most important singer-songwriters of all-time. He was a guest of Cassius for the fight and the four men, have some deep-rooted thoughts and conversations for the time, while also debating on what's the best way to celebrate Cassius's victory. Malcolm, who doesn't drink and is married, is got two packages of, ironically vanilla ice cream. Cassius wants to celebrate a little on his last day before joining the Muslim faith, so perhaps his last night of drinking. Jim and Sam want to head back to the Fontainebleu, where Sam and Jim, and the rich white people mostly hang out and Sam performs at occasionally. 

I don't want to go over everything they talk about and how they talk about it, but just want to encourage those to lay back and enjoy the discussions and conflicts between them. It's a look at both where these particular icons were at at the time, and a discussion of where the African-Americans identity and purpose means for the future. I kept thinking about how two of these men would be gone within a year from this moment, and how only Jim Brown is still alive today; one of the last major figures left of the Civil Rights Movement of this era that's still around. It's an imaginary look into the past, but also a look at the leaders of those who'd laid the roots for the future of the modern Civil Rights/Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements. Those who fought on their own, and those who worked for change within the system. 

"One Night in Miami..." is just a fascinating and inspiring film; one of the better versions I've seen of these imaginary conversations between important figures at major dates and times. It's an appealing and inspiring debut for King and this, along with "Soul" which he wrote and co-directed, introduces Kemp Powers as a stunning new, inspiring voice in American cinema, hopefully for years to come. Movies like these should usually be good, but they're rarely this good. 

PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (2020) Director: Emerald Fennell


Oooh-key, what the hell did I just watch. I-eh, I have to digest this one a bit, but I'll start with the fact that "Promising Young Woman" is the latest and one of the better films in this female revenge genre that I've run into a lot lately, both on the movie screen, and somewhat personally I might cryptically add. Is it a good genre? Well, any genre can be good, and the fantasy aspect of this genre is one that I think is needed and important in the current cultural landscape, so I'll say it's a good genre. I can also think of several good films recently within this genre. Is this one? Um, kinda, yes. Yes, it is, but oh boy, it's an uncomfortable, almost um, too aggressive and proactive an approach to this genre. 

With chapters separated by tally marks, we meet a young barista named Cassandra (Carey Mulligan), who goes out, at least, once a week, and appears to get blackout drunk at some nightclub or some other place where she can get picked up by some random guy for the night. The keyword is, "Appears", but she doesn't actually do this, she seems to get drunk enough for only the most pathetic and nauseating of men to drive her to their home and take advantage of her, only to find that she's taking advantage of them. This is disgusting and disturbing, frankly on both sides. This is a dangerous thing she's doing. At first, I figured, "Is she killing these men?", but it doesn't seem so. She's just tricking them and allowing them to feel tricked, which, frankly they should, they're trying to take advantage of some girl who doesn't really have the facilities to make decisions for herself, but then again, she's putting herself in a vulnerable position with men who seem fairly likely to freak out and do something, potentially even more vile and violent then what most of them were planning, at least in this movie, 'cause nobody, including most of the women aren't pathetic and nauseating to be honest, except for Gail (Laverne Cox), her boss at the coffeeshop. 

Um, I think I gotta confess something here that, eh, I suspect most of you probably knew or figured about me, but after watching this movie as well as watching "Euphoria" at around the same time, um, I do not like partying. Or parties for that matter, um; in fact I never have. Now, I had a decent amount of friends in high school, and a lot of them, more then I think I realized cared about me and probably wanted to make more me extroverted and less misanthropic over the decades. Some succeeded more then others, but none of them actually succeeded at it much, and frankly some of that's my fault, 'cause, well, I used to jokingly-not-jokingly mention to them that, you know, "You can say or do whatever you want in front of me, and I won't tell anybody, as long as nobody asks me about it." You see, I was mostly thinking that if people were actually looking for me to talk about them and the things they did that they were probably in real trouble, cause like, I 'm the last person people should be asking about, but in hindsight I think they interpreted that to mean, don't do anything around David, 'cause I'm sure other things were happening, not date rape necessarily, but you know, I didn't want to know and I don't know whether that was a good idea or not, but I do know that I didn't get invited to much, not that I accepted much when I did. Frankly, there's a lot of aspects of social life that I just find so personally repellent that part of me just doesn't...-, especially when I'm way on the outside looking in, and anyway, "Euphoria" and this movie in particular, seem to revel in all those traditional behavior of "party people" (I hate that phrase) that I frankly usually despise and most of the time, can't even really comprehend personally,  how people can get to that position...; it just doesn't seem plausible or believable to me, and I don't really know what to make of it honestly. 

I probably need hours of psychoanalysis to actually dive into why it seems so unnatural and implausible to me, but it clearly does happens and occurs, and people engage in that sort of excess, and we watch others who engage in it. Some of which, I think is a performance, which is kinda what I suspect Cassandra thinks too. Eventually, she engages in a relationship outside of this bizarre practice of hers, and she's incredibly reluctant, despite the guy, Ryan (Bo Burnham), seeming genuine and nice. He's a pediatric surgeon who remembered her from medical school, which clearly she dropped out of. It's hard to tell whether she decided to inevitably date Ryan because of, or in spite of the connection between them, but she dives into her medical school past even more, and begins using her tactics against them, most notably an old friend of hers, Madison (Alison Brie) who she had a falling out with after their friend Nina was sexually assaulted at a college party and didn't take her side. There's a few other women who make the same, tired cliched arguments that every man pre-and-post-#MeToo would make about men and women who get caught in supposed he said, she said situations, and it's frustrating every time. To some degree I think the flaw in writer/director Emerald Fennell's debut feature is that, essentially she's one-by-one taking down misogynistic straw men and women, who for years, just got away with not helping or actively hurting or not believing women who were sexually assaulted by powerful men, or young men with highly promising futures. I'm not saying it's not a good goal, but she goes to extremes as well; perhaps it's needed, but boy do I not want to see this character do them.
Is there a place for these kind of female revenge fantasies? Well, I can think of one particular great one in Lisbeth Salander from the  "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" franchise, which is the American title of the books and films adapted from Stieg Larsson's novel series "Man Som Hatar Kvinnor" which translates to "Men Who Hate Women", and that movie has more extreme fantasies then the realistic and disturbing ones that Cassie's thrusts upon the world around her, until they fight back against her, or so it seems. I loved those novels and the original three Swedish films of that series, but they also dealt with a lot of other things at the forefront then just getting revenge on the rapists and abusers of women and this was all the movie was, for good and bad. Personally, I think it's powerful and yet perhaps it's just, a little too, sacrificial for me. I'm still recommending it, Mulligan's performance in particular is quite startling and powerful, so is Burnham's and I think overall this kind of film is needed and important to see. I just question whether this was the best package for this narrative. 

Or is the fantasy just a little bit more satisfactory. 

SOUND OF METAL (2020) Director: Darius Marder


I have an uncle who was a musician a long time ago; he was a really good guitarist. Some big name bands tried to recruit him a few times, and he had his own band for awhile. In the end it didn't pan out much, but he ended up losing much of his hearing at some point. He's not completely deaf, and he's certainly not as deaf as Ruben (Riz Ahmed) a heavy metal drummer has at the moment in "Sound of Metal", but you know, if I'm on the wrong side of him or aren't talking loud enough, or I mumble, it can be annoying to talk to him; and I'm sure it's annoying for him honestly. I've heard of more then a few musicians, rock musicians mostly who've suffered from some form(s) of hearing loss over the years, Pete Townsend's comes to mind, but honestly I don't hear about it often. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if that's subconsciously a reason I never fully embraced heavy metal, (And probably why I'm more ho-hum on much of the current "Rock" scene; despite generally being a rock guy compared to most other genres including pop I never conflated rock with loudness, and more and more I feel like the mainstream rock charts [As if rock's mainstream anymore, but whatever] have confused the two more and more.) 

Ruben's a heavy metal drummer, and he's a recovery addict and he's risking almost all hearing lost at this point already. He's trying to get through the current road schedule touring with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) but it just gets worst, and if he doesn't pace himself completely, he can risking losing the hearing he has and no the cochlear implants wouldn't do him any good. Eventually, they find a retreat for him, a rehabilitation for the deaf run by Joe (Paul Raci) an alcoholic who learned to read lips after losing his hearing in Vietnam. He's an intense but forgiving leader of the commune, and he recognizes that Ruben's behavior is troubling. He's probably ADHD as he is constantly struggling just to remain still in the quiet, as Joe tells him to stop fixing the roof at one point and to just sit down and write. 
Eventually, he joins in on meetings and activities. He learns to sign pretty well and works with the kids when he can, even teaching them some drums. Still, he's a musician; it's not impossible obviously for people to be deaf and play and create music; that narrative has gone all the way back to Beethoven, but it's a tricky balance. 

There's not a lot of great depictions on film of the Deaf world, the biggest one I can think of is "Children of a Lesser God", the film that won Marlee Matlin her Oscar. That's a favorite movie of mine, but it's a flawed film. For one, it's actually not great with showcasing sign language. Cinematic language is not particularly conducive to sign language; closeups on faces look a lot better mid shots to focus on, in some cases, very quick-moving hands. "Sound of Metal" is better with that, but it's not great. Also, in "Children..." the lead character is perfectly capable of hearing; he just teaches and works with the deaf, and he spends much of the movie trying to get a character who doesn't talk, to talk, even though she doesn't want to. The Deaf essentially have their own worlds most of the time, so "Children of a Lesser God" is essentially about somebody trying to force the hearing world onto somebody who's deaf. "Sound of Metal", is kinda the opposite of that. It's about somebody who's in that in-between world and he's struggling to determine whether or not he wants to join this new world of the deaf, or rejoing the world he knows, if that's even still an option for him. It's a far more interesting conflict overall, like how there's a sequence after he's gotten some hearing back and he's struggling to be focused at a gathering of people at his girlfriend's father, Richard's (Mathieu Amalric) place. 

I also like that the movie doesn't provide a simple answer. It's not about finding a new self, or making someone do it, it's about getting caught between those worlds. Riz Ahmed gives a fascinating  performance here; he's been one of the best actors around for awhile now, and this is an amazing role. 
The film is the debut feature by "The Place Beyond the Pines"-writer Darius Marder, and Derek Cianfrance, who directed "...Pines" is a co-writer of this film, and it's an impressive debut, especially with the use of sound in the film. These guys mainly just have really good ideas for stories more then anything. We don't think about it, but even during the so-called silent days of film, it's amazing just how much film-viewing involved sound in some way, and that's just film-viewing, I can't imagine loosing my hearing, gradually or permanently the way Ruben starts to, espeicially if you work in an art where sound is indeed extremely important. Although I will admit, that sometimes it'd also shut off the noise of the world once in a while. 

THE FATHER (2020) Director: Florian Zeller 


(Sigh) Man, this year's gonna be a depressing Oscars. I don't mean for the normal reasons, I mean just these batch of films that are probably gonna get the majority of the major awards, they just seem depressing so far. "The Father" is one of the saddest of these films and also one of the better ones. From first -time director Florian Zeller, and is on his acclaimed play, which I've been told is actuallly a black comedy...? I'm not seeing that from this adaptation so hopefully my info's wrong about that, but the film is centered around and amazing performance by the great Anthony Hopkins, as an eighty-year-old man caught in the middle of dementia. Yeah, it's not necessarily a newish character for him; I can think of several Hopkins performances over the year of him playing the aged old man who's caught in the sands of time; my favorite off-hand is probably another play adaptation oddly enough, "Proof", but this one is different. If "Still Alice" was about a character degenerating from Alzheimer's then "The Father" or "El Padre" is about a character who's mind is stuck in the middle of it. 

Explaining this succinctly is difficult; it's not necessarily entirely from his point of view, it is, but it's about how messy his point of view is. Or how confusing. The best way I could describe it was be from this line in P.T. Anderson's "Magnolia" where Jason Robards's dying old man character talks about, losing consciousness of time lines. Things that may happen in the past can still seem recent, while things that may happen recently barely seem like they happen at all. You may focus in on something innocuous like a watch that you may or may not even own or have, while forgetting things like how a daughter passed away. (If there's another movie that deals with this well it's probably Charlie Kaufman's "Synedoche, New York".) 

For instance, in one scene, Anthony is talking with his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) but she leaves and heads to the store, and now she doesn't recognize her husband Paul (Rufus Sewell) or sometimes he's confusing his daughter with someone else, likely one of several takecakers that Anne's hired over the recent years while she struggles both with her work and her marriage, neither of which she can really keep up with, much less Anthony. He can't keep track of whether he's in his apartment or in his daughter's he suspects things are missing when they aren't. He can forget things like his one daughter having passed and then relive the horror and grief in his mind, but then he can bounce back to seeming somewhat normal. 

It's a frustrating movie-to-watch about a foreboding part of life that frankly I hope nobody has to suffer through. Honestly, losing control of my mind is probably my biggest fear, so movies like these often effect me more. Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman give stunning performances, some of the best of the year. If there's an issue with the film, it's probably a few minor issues with the timeline and how much or how little that matters; it's not perfect, the other thing is the medium. This is well-regarded play and while there's interesting cinematic choices here, like some of slight dutch angles in an otherwise straightforward kitchen sink narrative, but this is clearly a story that would work considerably better on the stage then onscreen. They did there best here, but this story is screaming for the Bertolt Brecht treatment and even a bare, minimalist shift in mediums like this one can seem a little awkward. I don't want to fault them much for this; I'm usually more lenient then most on theatrical adapatations, but-eh, I gotta confess that this one just bothered me a little too much, but that's also probably just that this is such a hard film to watch that I'm looking for anything to frustrate me with it. 

I know the feeling of seeing someone slipping away and being helpless in the face of it, and "The Father" shows both what it feels like to be slipping and just how brutal that effect on others can be.

FIRST COW (2020) Director: Kelly Reichardt


I admit to not always vibing with Kelly Reichardt's works, but I've been coming more and more to her approach and her approach to the stories she tells. She never takes the angle that most people would take; she's always looking around for more intense, quiet narrative of people and their surroundings finding different, off-the-beaten path avenues to,- well, not always success, but living. In recent years, I've admired "Meek's Cutoff" from her, which feels and looks like actually traveling along the Oregon Trail. (The computer game made it seem way more fun) but I didn't think she had made a really special film until her last feature "Certain Women", a multinarrative that followed three different stories of groundbreaking women finding their own paths to love and success in Montana. I don't know why she's attracted to the frontier areas of the country, in the past and its current remnants, but the part that always fascinated me around that time was the people who found success, not following the crowds of mostly miners, like during the various gold, silver and oil rushes, but those who saw all those people heading to a particular part of the country and thought stuff like, "There's a customer base." One of my favorite westerns is Robert Altman's "McCabe & Mrs. Miller", a film about a woman who opens a brothel in a frontier town full of mostly men for instance, and in hindsight, even though I haven't always liked Reichardt's work, (I seem to be the only person out there who's just outright allergic to "Wendy and Lucy" for instance) there's a lot of Altman influence in her work, moreso then I first realized. 
"First Cow" takes place mostly in the Oregon Territory, and follows an East coaster somewhat-appropriately named Cookie (John Maguro), who makes his way out west as a cook on a team of fur trappers. He meets up with a Far East Coaster King-Lu (Orion Lee), who's caught himself in his own pickle as he's a fugitive from Russians in the area. 

They eventually start working living and working together, trying to find work and they end up prospering by Cookie making biscuits by stealing milk from the only cow in the area. Yeah, the area's so newly being built and founded, only the local governor known only as Chief Factor (Toby Jones) has a cow. He was trying to bring the cow up with a bull and her calf, but they died on the journey up. They manage to pull it off by sneaking in at night and stealing the milk, Cookie often talking to the cow, having some pretty in depth conversations at times. (I mean, he's talking with a cow's imagined voice, but you know, it's the Frontier, you gotta find some way to keep yourself entertained.) Anyway, claiming an Ancient Chinese Secret for being able to produce the oily cakes, they begin to sell. They talk about trying to save up enough capital to head down to San Francisco, which was the booming West Coast multicultural capital of the West at the time and start a bakery. Things get complicated of course, especially after the Chief Factor hears about the biscuits. 

I like stories like these; perhaps it's America's romantic fascination with the image of the Outlaw that also quantifiably started in places like these during the same time, but western tales are really about the building of a new world, a new community and whatnot, but I like the idea of the people who run along those paths, but aren't quite apart of it. They stick out, 'cause they can see a different opportunity then the same one everyone does, and "First Cow", based on the Jon Raymond book "The Half-Life" does that in a wonderfully Kelly Reichardt way. I imagine these guys, either together or on different paths, perhaps making it to San Francisco as they dream of and pulling the same biscuits, or some other scheme, in every area along the way. There's some other good performances here, Reichardt-favorite Lily Gladstone is Chief Factor's Wife a young Native American woman who works as a translator between Chief Factor and the Native American Chief Totillicum (Gary Farmer), Alia Shawkat has a small narrative role in the beginning and the movie also marks the final appearance of the great character actor Rene Auberjonois. "First Cow" doesn't create a romantic look in this time period but gives us insight into the worlds of those who tried to take advantage of it. Some of them were just as successful or unsuccessful and many of the goldminers of that time and these stories are some of the most fascinating out there. Kelly Reichardt might be the best filmmaker out there for this kind of tale and it shows. 

Who knew biscuits would cause so much of an uproar?

THE INVISIBLE MAN (2020) Director: Leigh Whannell


I gotta admit, watching this movie made me hum the tune to The Dixie Chicks's song "Gaslighter", among other things. So, I don't know how inspired the film is by the original "The Invisible Man" or not, partly because I haven't gotten to the James Whale classic, but from what I can tell, the basic shift here is that the movie is ingeniusly switched perspectives from Claude Rains's to, well, I guess, whoever his love interest was in that film; if he had one. (Sigh) I really need to get to more of the Universal monster movies. That's not the comparison I made though, 'cause clearly the inspiration has headed in a very different direction; I mean, hell, I referenced "Gaslight", which is apparently what was going on to Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss). 

The opening of the movie is a quiet and yet frightening sequence where she had planned and just barely executes a daring escape from her boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). She spends the next few weeks with her detective friend James (Aldis Hodge) where she struggles to even get herself to go out to check the mail, much less leave the house for fear that Adrian will somehow find her. We don't get too many details of exactly what horrors she went through with Adrian, but apparently it was a lot and clearly, what little glimpses we get of him, he seems to just truly be a frightening, all-encompassing constant premise in her mind. Even after her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) comes to announce that Adrian's dead from an apparent suicide, she's skeptical. She accepts the cash from Tom (Michael Dorman), Adrian's brother and the administer of Adrian's will; Adrian was some kind of rich scientist who specialized in "Optics", eh, whatever-the-hell that means he did. It's not particularly clear, but eventually, even after he dies, some things start happening. E-mails getting sent from her that she didn't send out, finding pills around that she had at the house but doesn't have suddenly appearing in her bathroom, there's a fainting spell that occurs on a job interview. 

Other seemingly unexplained and sometimes supernatural events seem to haunt her and worst. She's convinced that somehow Adrian is still trying to instill his will onto her. Insisting her life is in danger. "That's what he does, he makes me seem crazy!".

That's true, but maybe all that time making her crazy, made her crazy? All I say is, on top of this being a complete reinvention of the H.G. Wells classic, in fact he's not even mentioned as being apart of the credits, the movie is another in this recent trend of female revenge films made in teh #MeToo era. There's been a lot of these and most of them have been good; this might be the most culturally popular one so far, although I'm probably underestimating "Promising Young Woman"'s appeal; it's certainly the one that most fits into a traditional movie narratives that most of America would recognize and be familiar. Director Leigh Whannell, who became famous originally as the main screenwriter fo the "Saw" franchise, which I'll have to confess a bit here, I also have never gotten to, all the way (I saw like, forty-five or so minutes of the first "Saw", eh, it seemed oh-kay, but I gotta finish it) he seems to have position Elisabeth Moss, who has to act against few to no one else for much of the film, as though she was one of Hitchcock's classic blondes, like a Grace Kelly or probably more accurately as a 'Tippi' Hedren-type here, and she pretty much nails it. We have a classic surrealist thriller that starts out with the brutality of reality but slowly leaps it's way towards the nightmarish, only to eventually find it's way back again. It's a tough thing to achieve especially in the horror genre where you typically can only be one or the other. 

I'll confess that I'm not entirely sure it completely works, if only because the base idea working is a bit of a stretch, (The lack of overly detailed explanations of things helps here) but this is a solid, and unique approach to a story that I thought frankly had been told enough at this point. So, proving me wrong alone earns points from me. 

TIME (2020) Director: Garrett Bradley


"Time", as is passing, as in doing, as in waiting, as in fighting. The movie I feel should probably remind me more of a tonal poem as oppose to a traditional documentary, I felt like it was a meditation moreso then an actual fight against an-, I was gonna say misjustice, but that's not correct. Misuse of Jusice, is probably more accurate. Misuse of the justice system, perhaps? 

The film's technically directed by Garrett Bradley but the movie was made over a couple decades using footage of and shot by Fox Rich, a New Orleans entrepreneur and criminal justice advocate, who spends twenty years trying to get her husband out of jail. He's not innocent of the crime, in fact she wasn't either. She got three and half years making a plea deal for essentially for driving the getaway car in her husband Rob's bank robbery, but he got sixty years for the crime. And this wasn't an unusual bank heist or anything; they were broke, they were desperate and they needed money. Nobody was killed or anything, he just sixty years for the crime, which, yeah, seems a little excessive by any modern standard. Shot in black and white and documenting Fox's time out of prison, raising her kids who all grow up to be quite proficient in school and life, which apparently matters to some of the people who decide things like parole; I'm not sure why, exactly. We also see her waiting on the phone a lot, and there's a lot of other small candid moments with her. We see her practicing and then recording what appears to be a car commercial of some kind, or some kind of sales training that she's leading, shortly after she got out of prison. The Rich's apparently were opening a hip-hop clothing store, what would've been the first in Shreveport at the time, when investors pulled out, which led to the bank robbery and there arrest. After that, we see the time pass. Recorded regularly in the hope that someday she'll be able to show it to her husband. She spends a lot of time on hold waiting for rulings and calls with the department, We also see her give motivational speeches about her life. 

She's not the first person I've heard talk about the justice system in America being equivalent to modern-day slavery; I remember hearing that in, some Michael Moore movie years ago, and I remember thinking how strange an idea it was, but he believed that history books in the future would claim that after we abolished slavery legally, the rise of the prison-industrial complex would ultimately be considered slavery as well, and the more I hear about the systemic racism and frankly just outright cruelty in the system, the more I believe it. Who has a law on the book where bank robbery, one, single, failed bank robbery, is automatically sixty years; murder one is generally twenty-five-to-life in most states!? That's not a law that design for prevention; that's a law designed for torturous incarceration; they might as well have just made him a sharecropper.

But Fox fights and persists and so does her family. The movie doesn't feel like an epic mosaic of growing up and time passing; I feel like comparing this to a tonal tone, like something Ron Fricke might make. Actually, I rewatched Beyonce's "Lemonade" before watching this ironically, (I'm trying to come around on Beyonce, I'm still not entirely sold, but one of the things that helps that visual album is the Warsan Shire poems that are interspersed throughout and act as intros to many of the songs and videos; it's how a lot of the movie feels. Her speaking and words are more like the poetry of life as she goes through it and we follow her along. And her family. Her twins are impressive and observant young people as well, and we see how incarceration effects them as well. I wouldn't say its hurts them. One of hte things that's the son mentions is how he seems to be the exception to all those supposed statistics about how one can't succeed in life without a present active father around. I mean, he has a present, active father, but he's not around. That's enough though when you have Fox and her family and friends. (Also, 'cause of course that's a stupid statistic; especially with parents in prison, if it's truly a horrific prisoner who's committed truly dispicable crimes then he probably would be better off without them in their lives, right? That's not the case here of course....) 

There's plenty of movies out there about how little justice there really is in the law; I heard recently somebody, I forget who, say that their law professor one said that any correlation between the law and justice is coincidental. Well, here's a story of a grave miscarriage of justice, and its strangely lyrical and hopeful. I always imagine that prison, and the biggest fears with prison is that you're not as concerned with the horrors of the inside, but being forgotten or replaced or just unnecessary on the outside, by your loved ones and others. I know reasonably that if I was ever in prison that this wouldn't happen to me, but it would frighten me, being missed and forgotten. The fact that Rob had somebody out there fighting for them probably is what saved him I imagine. Fox makes hopeful and powerful what should otherwise should just be a Hellish situation for all involved. Including the audience; "Time" is quite lovely and inspiring despite everything and it's lyrical approach to life is just delightful. 

NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS (2020) Director: Eliza Hittman



The first time we see Autumn's (Sidney Flanigan) bare back, she is in a locker room changing from her checkout uniform into her regular clothes and we see her adjusting her bra strap, loosening it, with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) zeroing in on her shoulder with concern. The next time we see it, she's undressing from her clothes, into a medical gown, and we're looking closely at her exposed skin, on her back and elsewhere we can see for any kind of unusual indention or remnants of some kind of past cut, scrape or bruise. 

Only recently with "Never Rarely Sometimes Always" has writer/director Eliza Hittman caught the attention of mainstream Hollywood, but she's been on my radar for a while. Her debut feature, "It Felt Like Love" was a shocking and disturbing look into the world of an under-developed teenage girl who's desperation to keep up with her supposedly more sexually-adventurous and knowledgable classmates leads her to making some really dangerous decisions and behaviors. It was almost like that scene in "Leaving Las Vegas" where Elisabeth Shue's character ends up with the frat college boys, only completely lacking the self-awareness of the penance she's subjecting herself too, and replaced a teenage girl trying to have sexual experiences, and also the whole movie. "It Felt Like Love", went to theaters unrated (I suspect it would've gotten a hard NC-17 otherwise); her follow-up "Beach Rats" was given an R rating but was still pretty out there as it followed a young gay man on the beaches of Brooklyn during summer vacation who was struggling with both meeting his homosexual desires for both sex and a relationship, while also trying to save face against some of his more jockish and probably homophobic to a bashing degree friends. They're two of the most brutal and graphic depictions of youths in films in recent years. Comparatively, "Never Rarely Sometimes Always" is far more digestible to an audience, although that could just be because we're comfortable with the idea of abortion in society, at least the majority of sensible people should be by now, despite attempts by more-then-their-should-be to turn back the clock and return us to the era of women dying from failed coathanger abortions. Autumn tries to punch her stomach a few times when she finds out that she's pregnant. 

She lives in a suburnan area of Pennsylvania, a state that is shockingly still pretty behind-the-times on abortion laws; in fact this is the second movie I can think of in recent years about a teenage Pennsylvania girl who's pressured into not getting abortion by her surroundings and has to cross state lines in order to get an abortion without being forcefed some ridiculous propaganda from the inept so-called Crisis Pregnancy Centers of the area and doesn't have to be forced to only have an approved abortion with their parents signature. The other movie was "Lebanon, PA", which is actually a real county in what James Carville would call the Alabama middle section of the state. That was more of a cute indy, but Hittman is out for the gritty realism. 

We don't know exactly why Autumn is seeming separate from her parents; it could just be normal 17-year-old girl stuff; there's only a scene or two at most where her parents are even present, and I don't think she says ten words to them. She doesn't seem to have to explain it to Skylar, who, seemingly on a whim and instinct, once she finally reveals to her the problem, immediately takes her to New York. They don't have much money, and the whole time there, they seem to get pestered all over the streets and subways of New York. Nothing that's apparently unusual to them; the first time we see a character react to Autumn, it's some kid from her school making a blowjob hand gesture towards her, like that one scene in "Boogie Nights". She throws a glass in his face and we don't know anything else. 

When things get rough and they have to stay in New York two extra days cause apparently she's more pregnant then the store-bought test at the Pennsylvania center said she was, and at the amount of weeks she is, the abortion is a 2-step, 2-day procedure. So, in between, there's a devastating and unbelievable single-take interview sequence and procedures that in a just world would easily give Sidney Flanigan an Oscar nomination, we see Skylar and Autumn reluctanlty meet up with Jasper (Theodore Pellerin), one of those guys on the ride up they ran into who couldn't possibly get the hint that they're not interested, but for needing money to get home and/or to pay for the treatment with, maybe they can put up with him. 

I'm reminded of something that I was taught by an old Literature professor of mine, about how all mens fairy tale are about overcoming a feat of strength, while classically, women's fairy tales are about them losing their virginity. I can't say that I don't have a male gaze, I do, but that disturbing dance between conqueror and prey that's embedded in our sexual DNA and promoted and approved of by society has rarely felt so disturbing. One of the last scenes in the movie is Autumn, privately grasping for Skylar's hand who's sacrificing herself and her body to this fairly disturbing and empty-headed guy in order for Autumn to essentially rid herself of whatever reminder's left from someone for whom she probably also put herself in such a voluntarily (or perhaps not) vulnerable position. Sex is the weapon young women have against the world and I don't honestly know whether I should be relieved that at least they have that tool, or pissed off that we've developed a world where it has to be their weapon they have to use.
Eliza Hittman's has created her most thought-provoking work yet; I don't know if it's my favorite of her work so far, but this young filmmaker has been nothing but provocative, and she's become one of the most interesting American directors out there and few have explored youth sexuality in its modern brutal transition phase in smart, observant ways like her. This is a powerful one. I know I'm making it sound like some brutal hard-to-watch piece of American neorealism, which it is, but this is too good a film to ignore and overlook, but more-then-that, it is intense! It's more watchable then I'm letting on as it subtlely thrills us. It's an intense ticking clock but the way she tells these stories...; she is making quintessential American character pieces and they are some of the richest characters out there. You become engaged in what they'll do next and you care about how they're gonna pull all this off. Don't just overlook this because of the subject matter and aesthetic; this is a great entertaining film. It's a film a that for adults is gonna provide or reveal shocking insight into the struggles of our youths, and it's probably a movie that kids should watch as well. I know it's rated R, screw the MPAA on this one, kids at that right age, should absolutely watch this film and probably Eliza Hittman's other films as well. They may read them as cautionary tales, but they only are until they happen. 

DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD (2020) Director: Kirsten Johnson 


I guess I didn't know exactly what Kristen Johnson's latest directorial effort would be, but I guess a move towards the personal shouldn't have come that out of nowhere to me. Still though, "Dick Johnson is Dead" is a unique experience. It's a film about preparing for death, both one's own, and how others prepare for it, both literally, and otherwise. 

Johnson had directed a few films before, smaller documentary projects, but she broke through a couple years ago with her film "Cameraperson". Not a cinematographer, cameraperson, 'cause she's been the constant girl with the camera for most of her career, and "Cameraperson" was a mosaic of her years of previous experience as a documentary cameraperson working with nearly every documentarian you can name and whoever else would hire her. The film was edited out of the raw footage that she personally shot. It sounds odd, but it is a startling film and a lot of it shows that strange Heisenberg perspective about and from the perspective of one who's documenting real life, even if that real life is somewhat staged, (or sometimes not) how it doesn't make some of the feelings and emotions any more-or-less real.  

She decides this time to go more personal though in "Dick Johnson is Dead" a documentary about her father. Dick Johnson is in his eighties, and until recently was still a regular practicing psychiatrist. His wife passed years ago, but in his and much of the family's mind, including Kirsten's she died long before that as the spirit of her was taken by Alzheimer's Dementia. We learn that Kirsten and her family are Seventh Day Adventists, a Christian denomination that admittedly I'm not particularly well-versed in knowledge of, but that meant that she grew up essentially without much of the excesses that most of us were comfortable with, and in this case in particular, film and television, although her father did "corrupt" her occasionally by taking her and her siblings to see Mel Brooks movies at the theaters. This is why she probably became a documentarian, but it's also why the only footage she has of her mother, is of her late in life after Alzheimer's afflicted her. And now, her father is beginning to show signs as well.

She decides, with her father, to take it all head on, and begins filming her father, dead. Well, dying. Well, neither. She instead, begins filming various scenes of her father in situations where he ends up dead, and her father is on board with these shoots, most of them very cinematic. We get a surprising amount of interviews with stunt people and we get a real deconstructing of the media, of death in the media and shows a process of grieving that's both important for both Kirsten and Dick, who during this time between living his own nightmare fantasies about losing his mind on a small film set, has to move with his daughter across the country, all the while, he slowly slips away from both of them. 
Honestly, perhaps this movie effected me so much because of just how much I fear losing my mental faculties in my old age. I seem to be the only person I know who thought "Still Alice" was seriously underrated as a film despite it being the movie that finally gave Julianne Moore her long overdue Oscar. "Dick Johnson is Dead" manages to straddle a lot of different lines and ideas. It's a personal movie about personal struggle, it's about life and death, it's about documenting life and death and it about finding ways to grieve the loss of loved ones, even if they may still be breathing they may not be as alive as they once were. "Dick Johnson is Dead" is a brave experimental film that i found surprisingly enjoyable despite all the ways I seem to be describing sadness. 

WOLFWALKERS (2020) Directors: Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart


I've had a difficult time really trying to get a grasp on Tomm Moore's works over the years. Not that I didn't like them, but he clearly had a particular interest that I just wasn't as intrigued by. Irish Folklore. "The Secret of Kells" was about the purported origins of "The Book of Kells" a famous 9th Century Latin gospel book; that one I admired visually but didn't care much for. I like his second feature, "Song of the Sea" a lot more, which was about a sibling who discovers that his mute sister is a "Selkie" and that leads them down into a secret enchanted world. Yeah, there's been a lot of those in animation lately but still, that was a good one. I also appreciated that one more then I liked it though. Now, the latest and we're told last one in Moore's "Irish Folklore Trilogy" is "WolfWalkers", which from my eyes is basically just his version of "Princess Mononoke", but it's also not a bad story. 

This time, his stylize water-colored look tells a story that takes place in the mid-17th Century in Kilkenny, Ireland, where a British transplant Robyn Goodfellow (Honor Kneafsey), a young daughter of a hunter Bill (Sean Bean), dreams of being a hunter like her father, who's tasked by Lord Protector (Simon McBurney) with clearing the nearby woods of wolves that have infested the area where they're planning for suburban development. She's ambitious, rambunctious and determined since there's little else to do in the town to get involved in the hunting. This leads her to befriends an apparent wild young girl Mebh (Eva Whitaker) who turns out to a titular wolfwalker. 

I guess "wolfwalker" is their term for wherewolves, I guess, but it's a little different then that, but basically, she's a wolf during her sleep and a human while awake. (I might be wrong and have that be the opposite,,,?; I thought that description was confusing either way.) After she's bitten by Mebh, Robyn and her pet bird Merlin, also become Wolfwalkers and begin to switch sides since the Wolves feel like their land is being invaded and have begun attacking humans, although not going off entirely on them, but enough to annoy them so far, try to convince them to leave, and perhaps fear them. That's something I was actually thinking about 'cause most everything I've ever actually heard about wolves is that they're actually fairly peaceful animals who rarely attack humans. I don't know what kind of wolves these are, but I know timberworlves for instance are very non-threatening to humans, which always makes me laugh when I think of the NBA team named after them and how they've never come close to winning a damn thing. 

The movie is fairly predictable from there. Megh's objective is to protect her mother, Moll (Maria Doyle Kennedy) the leader of the Pack, who's been kidnapped by Lord Protector, but meanwhile Robyn tries to convince her father to help out the best they can't. They actually make the situation more complex and not simply, like "Ferngully" this whole thing, I think a lot of this is just me, to be honest. These are legends that Tomm Moore's been telling and personal ones at that. I feel like I would appreciate these films more if I was a five-year old Irish kid who's still learning their stories and fairy tales. In a sense, that's a lot of what animation should be, so I guess on a greater level I really shouldn't be so lukewarm on these films, but I keep waiting for something special out of these movies and I don't feel that. Perhaps if I wasn't brought up on early Disney when he would stock up in the traditional stories of the American youths. 

Maybe that's it; 'cause they aren't completely fairy tales or children's stories, they play like that on the surface, but his films aim for the grandiose of celtic mythology, and mythology always felt too big for me when I was young. There's exceptions to this obviously, but those exceptions also felt like they were adult tales, which is what appealed to me more; these films are trying to thread that needle of being both. I guess they succeed in the animation aspects of that; Moore's distinctive approach is fascinating nd eye-catching at its best, but I find his stories don't always live up to it the way I think he wants them to. Sometimes they do, but as "Wolfwalkers", I'm recommending it, but I appreciated it more then I liked it. 

BACURAU (2020) Directors: Julian Dornelles and Kleber Mendonca Filho


Well, this one woke me up in the middle of the night. You know, I've actually seen a fair amount of Brazilian films over the years; it's not a country that immediately sparks to most minds when listing the most prolific foreign film nations, but I think it's reasonably up there, still though, "Bacurau" is a little different then the films from the country I'm used to getting/seeing. 

The movie's title "Bacurau" which translated into Portuguese means "Nightjar", which is kind of hawk I believe, is actually the name of the fictitious desert town/area of the country where strange things have started to happen. Surreal "accidents," including deaths, although separate from the death of the town's 94-year-old matriarch, Camelita for which the town has gathered. There's also reports of some strange floating objects around, some suspecting base on the shape that they might be UFOs. There's also a sudden disappearance of the town and the surrounding areas being erased from the global map on the internet. In fact, at a certain point, the internet signal seems to just stop, which is unusual for the area. 

At first none of these things alone have much meaning, except for an older woman, Dominga (Sonia Braga) who seems at first to be a hysterical crazy woman, but then some strangers on motorbikes arrive suddenly. I don't want to get too deep into the events of the movie, 'cause some reveals here that truly need to be seen and not discussed ahead of time. I will say that, a lot, not all though, of what it turns out actually is going on, and what ends up happening, revolves around water rights. This is something, I actually do know a little about; there's some major disputes over water rights in South America right now, and it's not between countries, it's between countries and companies and corporations like, Nestle of all people, who are investing and trying to outright buy rights to complete use of water in certain areas, often where people still are and currently use the water. In real life, it is as fucked up as it sounds. The town actually has been in dispute with it's legislative, called Mayor Tony Jr. (Thaddelly Lima) who's damned up the supply and now the town has to have it's water delivered to them. These often seem to be the trucks involved in the sudden accidents around town. 

The Mayor isn't the only stranger, as others have been showing up, and I won't explain how or why Udo Kier's presence in the movie arrives, but he is quite menacing. I've heard some people list this as one of his best villains, and I get it, and yet, frankly I some of those under him a little more disturbing.  That said, I think the movie's surreal and nightmarish intensity is really strong. We wonder not just what's going to happen but how. There's a lot of great twists in the movie as it quickly turns from a psychological supernatural thriller to gorey political thriller to one blood-soaked satisfying howcatchem, as we realize that essentially both sides have severely underestimated the other, but one side has underestimated them more. Brazil's currently a pretty turbulant country right now even outside of the fact that it's failed as bad as fighting the pandemic as anybody except the United States, and this can either represent one aspect of the troubles of the country at the moment, or perhaps has some over-arching symbolic protest throughout. Either way, as a film, is a rare, unique piece of skilled filmmaking matched with an unpredictable thriller that kept me fascinated all the way 'til the end. It's one you may have to think about and study a bit up on to fully get, but I think there's more then enough here to recommend without doing that. Essentially, it's a movie about a village/town, protecting themselves from outside invaders, and there's a lot of places in the world that are having to do that, more often then we really realize, and a cinematic, fictional, but ultimately very good and entertaining version of what some of these people may in fact be going through and perhaps are preparing for at this time.  

VITALINA VARELA (2020) Director: Pedro Costa


This is the first feature I've seen by the Portugeuse director Pedro Costa and I gotta confess that I'm not terribly familiar with his work, which might be somewhat problematic. He's got a particular style of filmmaking. To quote Monica Castillo's review of the film on regarding his distancing avant-garde style: 

" It bears little of the trappings of popular movies, has only a little plot for us to follow and it looks more like a stylish photoshoot come to life. Most -in not all- of the shots in teh film are static, composed to an extraordinary degree of rigor. This will either capture your attention for the next two hours or frustrate you."

Yeah, there's no real in-between, but I gotta be honest, I was more in the frustrated camp. There are filmmakers and movies like this that I do admire but generally the movies I think are ones that I might respect at best but generally just don't care about. The documentary "Leviathan" about commercial fishing in the North Atlantic comes to mind for instance. I also kinda feel this way about a lot of Wong Kar-Wai films; that they're more like beautiful photographs that should be hung in a museum as opposed to cut together in moving images 'cause, well half the time his idea of narrative is pretty non-existent. ("Ashes of Time" in particular comes to mind here) 

Costa's got a great visual eye, and he's telling an interesting story here. 

"Vitalina Varela," which is both the name of the actress in the main role and the film's title, is a Cape Verde immigrant who arrives in Portugal to see her husband who's been there for decades, only to find out that he just passed away a few days ago. She's told originally, like right after she gets off the plane, to go back, but she instead ends up staying, saying that she waited 25 years for a passport and she's not going back now. Indeed, she has not been with her husband for decades, and now, she's here, she's going to stay. The rest of the movie, essentially is her going over through his house and belongings and the other people around him, trying to capture his last days and perhaps the last couple decades. The most help she gets is through a local Priest (Ventura) who was a friend of her husbands. 

It might help to know that Ventura and Varela starred in Costa's previous feature "Horse Moey", so this is a bit of a callback. Costa works with non-actors and in Cape Verde a lot, which once upon a time was actually apart of Portugal until it gained independence. It's definitely a lesser-seen part of the world and culture, and this is not an inherently bad concept or even a bad film. That said, yeah, this was slow and frustrating. I get the sense that I probably have to get used to Costa's style to fully embrace a film like this. Even with the approach, it's a weird mix, this neorealist approach to filmmaking mixed with this lyrical and gorgeously stoic cinematography don't really go together that well. I didn't love "Nomadland" but that's the approach you should take for these kinds of films, pretty cinematography, but a more handheld and minimalistic look is best, and it's been that since the original neorealists. Vittorio Di Sica could make high-budget beautiful blockbusters, but he just didn't because they didn't work for the story. 

That again could just be me. "Vitalina Varela" is too different from most everything else I see to completely make these claims. There's no rule against trying to combine this approach with this story, and there are times when it works. I like the production design of this house and we do get these washed over ghostly tones and images that does mix with Vitalina trying to understand both this new world for her and the days of her husband after he had turned it into a home. It's an interesting introduction to Costa but I'm just not entirely sure I've bought into him yet. 

THE WILD GOOSE LAKE (2020) Director: Yi'Nan DIAO


I struggled getting a hold of what to say about "The Wild Goose Lake" for a long time. It's one of those weird movies where I enjoyed the style fo the film immensley, but I just didn't have a particular instinct on the film as a whole. It probably hurts that this is my introduction to Yi'Nan Diao, the Chinese director behind "Black Coal, Thin Ice", which has been stuck on my Netflix queue for way too long at this point. (I've noticed that it's harder and harder to impress me on the first film I see of a director; it's distressingly auteur of me) That said though, I mostly suspected that i got the point. "The Wild Goose Lake" is basically a violent, stylized version of a classic neo noir. Even still, the style was compelling in its approach, but the story was stumbling for me. It wasn't 'til I read Ignaty Vishnevetsky's review for the AV Club where he finally pinned it down to me as the movie being a little too close to Wong Kar-Wai's '90s films did I finally think, "Oh, that's what he's going for.
I seem to be in the minority on this, but I've never really liked Wong Kar-Wai's films. Well there's an exception here and there, but even the films of his I like; I've never thought of him as a great director, and I really didn't like any of his '90s films which were this gritty handheld, style. It's not quick that look, but he's going for a Wong-style story here. Basically, Zhou (Ge Hu) is a leader of a gang of gangsters. After a rivalry between him and another gang gets out of hand and ends in a cop getting killed and a rival gang member beheaded while they were in the middle of a stupid challenge to see which gang could steal the most scooters, he's on the run. Since the police are involved, there's a huge bounty on his head as he escaped to the titular Wild Goose Lake area of Wuhan Province. Wuhan's dialect of Mandarin is apparently so regionally weird that subtitles were needed for this film in China, but of course I didn't notice that. 

Mostly though, Zhou taking his time on the run to reflect on life, and he decides that since his fate is sealed no matter what, that he wants the reward money to go to his family, so he needs to find somebody to trust to turn him into the police, before either the rival gang or the police themselves catch him. He settles on Aiai Lui (Gwen Lui-Mei) a bathing beauty (Her term for prostitute) who's he seems to trust the most, but isn't entirely sure and it take a bit before he reveals this ultimate plan of hers. Meanwhile, the movie goes through more murders, chases and sub-characters who are killing or treachering our hero and others to challenge somebody who remember the entire story of "The Big Sleep" from memory. I think that's the problem, the movie has a good idea for a narrative, a longtime criminal-turned-fugitive wants to make penance somehow in his final days and befriends somebody to entrusts in essentially his last wishes. But it gets too caught up in the style and you can only pay so much attention to this strain little relationship and all the big parts that matter of it, because we're constantly on the run or caught in a chase or a shootout. There's needs to be a different pace for this. The movie that comes to my mind that did this well, and it's not really the same narrative but, Peter Weir's "Witness" feels like the movie this should've been. 

Still, I do like a lot of what's here, I just wish it knew the better parts to focus on. It's a good style, that kept me interesting in what's going on, even if I couldn't quite follow everything that was going on perfectly. It's a tough call, but I'll give this a slight recommendation, I think there's enough here, although I think there's better films in this growing Chinese gangster movie genre that's taken over much of the Chinese cinema market lately. I'm all for the genre, for instance "Ash is Purest White" is one of the best films from last year, but this is more of a strong second-tier entry in the genre to me.

THE TRAITOR (aka IL TRADITORE) (2020) Director: Marco Belocchio


I gotta confess I'm not particularly familiar with the works of Italian director Marco Bellochio, the director of the Mafioso biopic "The Traitor". I've seen more then a few reviews compare this attempt at a mafia tale to Scorsese's "The Irishman" as well as just his work in general; it's almost as though we now associate any attempt to tell a story about the Italian mafia as just being something that's Scorsese-like. I don't know if that's just American-bias or what, but I still kinda get the comparison. Essentially all mafia tales are about "The Traitor", that arbitrary tradition of not going against the family that's basically nothing more then a threat for one's life. Anyway, "The Traitor" in this film is Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancisco Favino), a Mafia officer who turned on the Corleone Crime Family (The real one, in Sicily) and who's testimony was apart of the Maxi Trial, an infamous six-year long trial that convicted and reveal most of the major mafioso figures among two crime families in Italy. He had a long, confusingly elaborate criminal career that including murder in Italy, drug trafficking in South America; he committed crimes on three continents, at one point he got plastic surgery and had his vocal cords exchanged in order to hid from police. You don't see much of it here, at least not outlined in any detailed manner; instead at the beginning, he get a brief montage of death, that comes with a literal body count on screen. I'm not sure what count they're using but either way, according to Buscetta, the death count got way too close to home and he turned informant. 

There's some recreations from the Maxi Trial in the movie that are probably the most compelling in the film. I don't know entirely the Italian Justice System, but I have seen clips of how outrageous and over-the-top this trial was, and it seems accurate to me. I imagine in Italy for many, it felt like people who lived throught the O.J. trial here, but it's a story worth telling. 

The movie doesn't get particularly deep into Buscetta mind; it's mostly recaps the story as factual and as bare bones it can; I guess that's a strength, despite everything I don't think there'd be much that compelling about him honestly. Most mobsters are shockingly shallow, even those who've turned. Mostly his accomplishments are the jail sentences that everyone got because of his testimony. I guess there was also quite a lot of dead bodies in his wake. It's funny to see a scene where all the mobsters are gathered around a TV to celebrate the reports of the Judge's assassination. I guess there's nothing bad about "The Traitor" other then it's just as shallow and violent as the mafia is. That said, it's definitely worth a watch. The filmmaking never slows down and Favino's performance is what truly makes the movie. I think the filmmaker finds him enigmatic more then anything, which is probably right. Buscetta's a compelling character who seems to have a moral code, and was willing to turn and even live the rest of his life in witness protection after a lifetime devotion to the mob, but he often talks about feeling how he isn't an informant because he believes the code of the Mafia has changed. I don't know if I buy that much, but I'm sure it changed for him. "The Traitor" is a solid look at this groundbreaking, earth-shattering era of the Sicilian mafia's rise and fall; I don't know if it's much more then that, but it feels like we're falling more and more down several rabbit holes as we're watching. 

A WHITE, WHITE DAY (2020) Director: Hlynur Palmason


I like the original idea of this movie as it's explained in the opening. The idea is that when the fog comes in so thick that both the snow-filled ground and the sky that that the moments when the spirit world collides with the human world. I can think of a lot of movies with that premise, and the movie opens with an unbelievable shot of a car driving down such a white sky overlaying a white road. It's a gorgeous scene. It's also a tragic one. 

It's two years after Ingimunder's (Ingvar Sigurdsson) wife (Sara Dogg Asgeirsdottir) has died in a car accident. He's a local cop in his small Icelandic town. Between occasionally watching his eight-year-old granddaughter Salka (Ida Mekken Hlynsdottir), he also works on building a house, while he's seemingly haunted lately by his wife. He claims he's okay and is otherwise sleeping well, but it's starting to get to him and he's starting to fear something coming up. He begins to worry and suspicious that perhaps his wife was having an affair. Evidence starts to bubble to the surface, but is it evidence? His mind starting ot crack? Or maybe it's that spiritual world in-between the white? 

The movie was Iceland's submission last year for the International Oscar and its director Hlynur Palmason's second feature after the minor hit "Winter Brothers". There's a lot of interesting stuff here; I love the photography and there's a lot of strange surreal imagery that I can't always tell is in the characters mind or are just symbolic aberrations for the sake of symbolic aberrations. The movie mostly hinges on the performance of its main actor and Sigurdsson gives a really strong performance here and manages to give off a lot of emotional depth with an outstanding minimalist performance of a man who's slowly imploding until he explodes. I wonder if there's still more, better possibilities of films with this conceit, but I did enjoy a lot of this one, even if it often left me, no pun intended, cold. It's not my favorite film of mine about characters realizing their significant other cheated on them after they've passed, personally I think Alexander Payne's "The Descendants" (Although technically, that was a coma) did this best, but movies about painful, haunting memories of a troubled lover often allow that complicated exploration of emotions to play out. The last sequence of the movie, reminded me a lot of Vincent Gallo's "The Brown Bunny" oddly enough, in how even in the hurt and pain of greif and betrayal, one can still also, find themselves remembering those most personal moments. Seeing their loved ones as they wish to remember them, when they were at their most personal and intimate with you, even while dealing with the fact that they perhaps never knew them at all. 

ADVOCATE (2020) Directors: Phillippe Belaiche and Rachel Lee Jones


Lea Tsemal is an Israeli defense attorney infamous for defending Palestinean terrorists. Not just terrorists, but she helps out and defends those for whom a judicious system is clearly written to go after. She's defended everyone from thirteen year old girls accused of attempted murder when they only were running after someone down the street with a weapon in jest, to suicide bombers who may of may not have just been suicidal, to even her husband. Her husband is a major Anti-Zionist figure Michael Warchawski. She even defends some of her co-workers as, at least in the post-script of the version of the version of the film I saw, she ended up defending Tariq Barghout, who usually was afriad of making statements with her, but is now needing her defense. 

To say that the movie is controversial is an understatement in Israel. Trying to dive into all the details of sociopolitical culture of the land and Tsemal's position in it, as well as the systemic issues with the Israeli judicial system is probably an epic too complicated to dive into, but you get enough of that in the film. Shot in cinema verite style with some odd glimpses of half-hand-drawn animated segments that split-screen with shots of real life events. Those scenes are cools, but I'm not sure I completely get them; I wonder if there's a legal reason for those scenes personally. Anyway, the movie itself, is okay. I find that with movies like these, these cinema verite-inspired biopics, I usually find myself learning more about the subjects by researching their wikipedia pages half the time these days. Not that they're bad, but they're not always inherently compelling, even good ones. 

Lea Tsemal's story is so unknown to me that even getting the nuances of her backstory requires a lot of history lessons. What I can tell you, is that she's a human rights activist who cares about those who've been ostracized from society and she's still continues to fight and get admonished and criticized for it. She was radicalized after the Six-Days-War in 1967, and ever since, she's basically taken on every high profile difficult case she can. She talks about losing a lot, but that's to be expected. She's not necessarily brave for this, as she says she's just the only one that's not afraid to take on these cases. She's probably right, she seems like the kind of tough old woman who's not phased by anything. 

The movie ws directed by Phillippe Bellaiche and Rachel Leah Jones and was shortlisted for the Academy Awards Best Documentary category last year. It's a story worth telling, one tale in a large complex mess that of history and horror that is modern-day Israel for those trying to live and survive in it. 

CLEMENCY (2019) Director: Chinonye Chukwu


There is no humane form of capital punishment. There's always been this esoteric debate at least in America about what the best or most civil manner in which to execute a condemned man, but trust me, there isn't one. Whether it's the electric chair, lethal injection, gassing, whatever other methods that technically are still legal in this country, one of only like, four others that still have it, they're all ways of humans taking the life of another human and there's no, clean, way of doing it, either literally or morally. It's also not a new subject matter for film either, I can think of several movies both good and bad that have been about the death penalty and hell the Columbia-style social justice picture goes back to the '30s. "Clemency", the breakthrough picture for director Chinonye Chukwu is not particularly new there, however it is thrilling in its quiet intenseness. There's not much non-diagetic sound in this film, which makes the few scenes of, for lack-of-a-better-word normalcy, with the characters seem noticeably off-kilter, giving a sense of dread washing over the whole movie. 

You'd think that'd mean that the movie about a victim of the Justice system who was sentenced to death for a crime they didn't commit. Well, there might be one here, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), but instead, the movie is about the warden of Death Row, Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard, in a great performance). We're introduced to her overseeing what ends up being a botched execution; one that does end in the death of the prisoner but the lethal injection didn't work exactly as planned. That's also something that's been a surprising and disturbing trend lately by the way, botched executions. Anyway, we meet and follow her around for, what I imagine is, months, maybe years even. Executions don't actually occur that often as Death Row defendants usually are fighting there appeals through the court system for decades sometimes. Anthony's attorney doing that for him is Marty (Richard Schiff), an old long-standing death row attorney who's had most, but not all of the idealism beaten out of him after decades of failure and failure, loss after loss, and death after death. I'm sure he's had victories here and there, but when he's not trying to fight for the next appeal or try to keep his client in good spirits, he's actively talking about retiring after his case. 

Anthony struggles with this hard. He doesn't talk much to the Warden who I suspect he knows is trying her best and all that she can do, but he practically rejects her when she's explaining the details of the execution or even the requests for a possible last meal. At one point, he freaks out and tries to self-harm himself, which, is another one of those absurdities with us. We can kill you, but don't try to kill yourself.... America is weird. Anyway, Anthony also is probably innocent of his crime of murder; his case involved a robbery that he admits to being apart of the robbery, but he retains his innocence and there's evidence and witnesses that came out since his trial that makes his claim of innocence sound more believable. 

Bernadette has to deal with the parents of the murder police officer he's in jail for, as Mr. & Mrs. Collins (Dennis Haskins and Vernee Watson) try to get their grandson to go to the execution. Anthony also finds out that he's got a son as well, suddenly, as his ex-girfriend Evette (Danielle Brooks) finally gets ahold of him. Mostly though, we're following Bernadette. She's constantly as still and stiff-backed as you'd expect any powerful female character for Alfre Woodard to play. There's moments of levity at times though, like a funny scene where she's leaving a local bar fairly drunk for her, and is light and having, maybe a little too much fun. There's even some fairly sexy scenes she has with her longtime husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce), but they're also fairly troubled at the moment as she is having trouble sleeping and her work, especially since the botched execution, is slipping into her dreams and begins to strain their marriage as she seems to have more of a relationship with her fellow jailers. 
"Clemency" is essentially a character piece about Bernadette, which may or may not be the best approach to the subject, but it's a compelling and interesting one. The filmmaking is claustroprophic, even when not in prison. The acting is minimal and superb. The movie is more haunting and lingers on long after you've the movie's done. It presents the horrors of capital punishment through the perspective of the executioner of it. I have no idea whether someone in that position is the kind of person effected by their job to such emotional strains as Bernadette; I actually suspect they might be more immune to it, but, then again, everybody does and must have a breaking point.  

TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID (2019) Director: Issa Lopez


Here's a genre that I always feel like I should appreciate a lot more then I do, magical realism. Like, on paper, this should work better, and be more compelling; the idea of starting with realism and then adding the elements of fantasy, well, that's basically the horror genre. Besides, it's makes more sense to me naturally anyway. Fantasy worlds I think have to be so complete that I can't poke holes in them for me to work, but I like the idea in theory that the real world is like our normal world, but something fantastical is introduced or invades it, and we see how it effects us. In theory this is a cool idea. Does it actually work? Ehh, I guess I can think of a couple examples where it does, "Let the Right One In" comes to mind, but, honestly I don't think it does. Especially with a movie like "Tigers are Not Afraid", Issa Lopez's eye-catching breakthrough film. 

It takes place in a Mexican city that's basically controlled by the drug cartels. We open the movie in a school, which is apparently shut down after gunfire from the cartels interrupts the class. There, Estrella (Paolo Lara) is given three pieces of chalk from her teacher (Monica Del Carmen), promising that this allows her three wishes. Wishes she needs when she comes home after school is apparently cancelled, to find her mother missing. She wishes her mother to return, only for her to return, as a ghost (Viviana Amaya), and she gives her instructions to "Bring him to us". 

Whoever "him" is, leads her to eventually reluctantly team up with a group of street orphans, led by El Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez) who are fighting the war against some of the leaders of the cartel, mostly El Chino (Tenoch Huerta) at first; this violent high-ranking politician who they suspect killed many of their parents. Shine managed to his gun and phone, and Estrella is forced to kill him, as kind of a jumping in. She doesn't have to as it turns out he was already dead after she made a wish right before pulling the trigger. 

The story gets more complex and convuluted from there, although the energy of the story never backs off. This is one of my issues with magical realism used this way, where fantasy is used almost exclusively as a sorta, personal mind clearing of the horrors of real events. Like, that sounds good on paper, I know, but it always feels way more contrived then it should be. That's one of my issues with "Pan's Labyrinth" in fact; I still love the movie, so don't go bashing me on that; I just find the metaphor disconnecting and jarring at times, even when done well! Here, it's done, oh-kay-ish.... It's definitely influenced by Del Toro, but I don't know if it's greatly used here. The idea is still solid and we do get this frightening look into a Lord of the Flies like world of drug cartel orphans; it's like an early Bunuelian world that we're introducing surreal fantasy too, and well, that's kinda what he would do as well. Usually he would separate it into dreams; perhaps there's more to the movie and stuff like the wishes and the ghosts could make me look at this and see if there's an alternative real world going on, like a "Life of Pi" scenario. It's not that good to make me look into it that deep, but it's a solid interesting film of a distinct look and style. Lopez has made quite a few features since this film, perhaps once I dive more into her work I'll appreciate it more. 

That said, I'm not getting the whole tiger thing though. I'm probably missing something with that. 

HIGH LIFE (2019) Director: Claire Denis


I feel like I oughta really start getting an opinion on Claire Denis soon. I've seen many of her features, I generally recommend them, and there's definitely several consistent themes and motifs in them. She's actually really interesting in the abstract, but I gotta be honest, even in the movies I most admire from her; I've always felt a little held back from her as well. I think my favorite film of hers is "35 Shots of Rum" and that movie's basically just an Ozu ripoff with one wonderful long scene from at a bar. I think the movie most people single out of hers is "White Material", which, I'm more ambivalent towards, but it's probably the one that most closely helps us understand her. See, she's a French filmmakers, but she spents most of her early life in French Colonized Africa; we think of that practice as an older thing but her father was a civil servant who was stationed around West and North Africa. She grew up in countries that technically don't exist anymore.

You can kinda tell in her movies that there's usually a distant barrier she can't crack because of this, she's always the outsider into a world she's filming. I think? Maybe? I really don't know what to make of her work overall. I don't think I've ever outright hated or even panned any of her films, but I've never loved them either. It's weird 'cause she's very similar to a lot of filmmakers I love; she's reminscent of people like Jim Jarmusch or Wim Wenders. Her style is describe as lyrical, I guess, which yeah, I mean she's never been concerned with plot or narrative as far as I can tell; my best experiences watching her films is just paying close attention and taking everything in. 

So, I guess now that I'm thinking about it, it's kinda surprising that she hasn't done this kind of sci-fi film before. "High Life", is her first English-language film, and it takes place mostly in space. On one of the strangest spaceships I've ever seen. In this unspecified time in the future, this ship of prisoners, yes prisoners, is sent to the outskirts of the universe in order to retrieve alternative energy from a black hole. This sounds like a sick punishment to begin with, but actually there's more going on. The movie jumps in time, 'cause there's a main, scientist on board, Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche) who, for several reasons that I'm not gonna try to explain is trying to artificially create life using the prisoners as guinea pigs. The movie focuses in on Monte (Robert Pattinson) a patient who's more celibate then the other prisoners/patients in that he doesn't use a room on the ship called "The Box", which, is some-, I don't even know if I want to explain this, but basically it's a masturbation room on the ship, which....- I don't know, I'm not gonna complain about a scene where Juliette Binoche does what she does in there, but he's reserved himself from even that for fear he needs to pent up energy for other situations. (Also, despite seeming to be vehemently anti-everyone else having intercourse, Dr. Dibs constantly flirts with Monte. 

There's other good performances in this film, most notably for me, Mia Goth, who's very quickly become one of the most brave actresses working today, as well as Andre Benjamin, as the one character who tries to go all "Silent Running" in this film as he enjoys spending his free time in a garden. I won't explain why or how, but eventually, a child is born on this ship and then has to be taken care of as they head out towards the furthest reaches of space. 

The obvious film that "High Life" is most striving to be is Andrei Tarchovsky's masterpiece "Solaris", which expertly use space travel as a metaphor for one's most personal visceral emotional struggles. This movie definitely takes the idea in a different enough direction, but like "Solaris" which also toys and twists it's own issues with time, the movie is more about the emotional struggles of the characters, in this case some disturbing vicious, criminal characters, who are under the control of arguably the most terrifying criminal of the bunch. I don't really know what to make of the whole-, um, metaphorical everything, which is kinda how I feel about most of Denis's films, so I guess I'm gonna recommend this one as well. I don't know if it actually works, but it's too interesting and bizarre an experiment to not experience. Claire Denis baffles and mystifies me once again and I wouldn't want it any other way.   

GIANT LITTLE ONES (2019) Director: Keith Behrman


The strangely-titled "Giant Little Ones" is a critically-acclaimed breakthrough film for Canadian filmmaker Keith Behrman; it received a lot of awards attention up north and only a little attention down in America, but it's an interesting look at a modern high school tale of love, friendship, rumors, and outright lies and how they can just completely converge all at once on someone's entire life and all for very stupid reasons.

Franky Winter's (Josh Wiggins) parents recently split up and he's trying to move on with school and life in the shadow of that. He's throwing himself a party for his upcoming 17th birthday where he's hoping that he'll have some much need fun, including his girlfriend Priscilla (Hailey Kittle) who seems more-then-willing to use the event as a reason to have sex with Franky. He's excited, they have the condoms, she's excited it seems. Not sure it's supposed to be either of there's first time, but Franky's friend and fellow swim-team competitor Ballas (Darren Mann) is unusually pressuring towards him, often talking about all the sex he has with his girlfriend Jess (Kiana Madeira). At the party though, a few odd things happen, but wasted out of their minds Franky and Ballas share a sexual experience with each other. They both concede that it wouldn't happen if they weren't wasted, but the moment lingers on. Franky's freaked out at first because his father, Ray (Kyle Maclachanm, who has a really nice monologue in the film) left his mother Carly (Maria Bello) after he came out as gay and started a relationship and moved in with his new boyfriend, so he's concerned about hidden or unknown homosexual tendencies at first, and he doesn't want to hear from his dad on this issue. Then however, there's sudden tension with others at school as his friends start turning on him. 

After he confronts Ballas, he reveals that he told everybody that he put the moves on him, and while Ballas was asleep. This is the big lie, in this movie. It's not even a good lie; in fact, it's really stupid and obnoxious of Ballas, who frankly didn't have to say a damn thing at all, much less make up a story about it. "That's what he does," said Mouse, a trans friend of Franky's who he reconnects with after the incident, remarking about his continued past of always blaming someone else, a pattern that's been true since they've all been kids. She also tells him to just "own it", regarding his homosexuality. He isn't sure that's the right approach, but clearly the rumor is causing friction at home and school.

Eventually, he starts to see Ballas's sister Natasha (Taylor Hickson) who was ostracized a year ago from the school, and even her brother because she was sexually assaulted at a party, because of course she is. This leads to another layer to the conflict between Ballas and Franky, who's double downing on his lie, and begins to turn more into a gaybashing bully after a while as a way of protecting himself from whatever. Honestly, the frustrating thing is, it's not like his parents, Nic and Angie (Peter Outerbridge and Stephanie Moore) are like pressuring him or anything. There's a scene where the parents get together and try to instigate at least a truce between them, and things break down when Randy refuses to concede to Ballas's demands (Their conflict has continued to escalate beyond just the lies.) and Ballas's parents seem dumbfounded by the decision, while Ballas just refuses to concede any real forgiveness, but the parents also seem to recognize Franky and Natasha's new relationship as tenuous and tempermental and the father in particular shows his genuine concern that it's only existing because Franky's trying to get back at Ballas, and I think he recognizes that it's not, but he's still trying to understand exactly why the split between Franky and his son has just become irreconcilable. 

"Giant Little Ones" on the surface is basically high school gossip gone awry, and essentially that's why I like the film, but it's also a little better and smarter then that. It takes something that could just be a darker "Mean Girls", or "Mean, Everybody I Guess", and finds a way to reveal more humanity and conscieness as it weaves it's way through otherwise extreme hormonal emotions and tones of teenagedom. There's also some good performances here; coming of age stories are always a bit tricky and cliche and here's a movie that understands just how messy it can be as well. 

THE RAFT (2019) Director: Marcus Lindeen


Okay, so, in the mid-19th Century there was a few fascinations we had with, eh, sending rafts across the ocean. I'm dead serious, this was a thing. I can think of two major films just made about the Kon-Tiki expedition which was an attempt to prove that pre-Columbian Americans could reach Polynesia; it was a big deal. There were others too, enough where I remembers parodies of this fad, well into the nineties. This was a pop science thing at the time, apart of a larger Millgrim-influenced trend of sociological experiments going on in the academic community. A lot of these ideas you'd here now and swear they were just some bad pitches for a reality show, and that's, accurate actually. In fact, that's usually one of my favorite defenses of reality television, to compare them to sociological experiments, and reality tv helped sell that idea as well. That's why it's called "Survivor" and not, "Stranger Who Lived Outside the Offscreen Hotel the Longest". 

"The Raft" tells the story of one of the more infamous stories like this, a sociological experiment created by a Mexican anthropologist named Santiago Genoves. He studied, violence mostly, and ironically ended up on, another trend of the mid-to-late 20th Century we don't see much of these days, airplane hijackings. After that experience, he felt that putting people in confined spaces would be a good way to study the origins of violence. So, he decided to seek out eleven people chosen from a wide and varied collection of people from all over the world, all ages, backgrounds, genders, etc. and he put on a small boat and sent them into the Pacific to study them. This, this was a stupid idea. 

I want to make this clear, there is stuff you can learn about social behavior in confined spaces, including people on a boat, but violence is not one of them, and that's probably one you don't want to study. For one thing, it's hard to manufacture violence out of thin air, especially when everybody's in such a tempermental position, like, being on a small raft in the middle of the Ocean. It's not that it's a horrible idea, but yeah, the way he tried to go about it....

Let's put it this way, just how far off he was on this from whatever hypothesis he was aiming for, when news started breaking of the story, it was deemed "The Sex Raft" because of some of the rumored activities going on there. He was studying attraction as well, but he was clearly losing his mind way more then anybody else was. I get the feeling that it's people like Genoves that gives science a bad name to some; this idea that they're bias and really striving for things that more-or-less just appeal to themselves, like being trapped on a boat with a bunch of young, nubile half-naked people? I mentioned that Kon-Tiki expedition earlier, that was the brainchild of Thor Heyendahl; he was apart of that expedition before he did all this! (And that journey, while successful essentially, Dahl's theories have long since been proven incorrect)  

The movie does go over his flaws where a replica of the boat is placed on a soundstage as surviving members of the experiment are interviewed about their experiences and talk with each other about their thoughts on Genoves who they more-or-less realize was a flawed guy with a flawed idea that he frankly wasn't fully able to fully understand what he was doing. He would try to instigate stuff with interviews with the subjects, and try to ask questions that would manipulate their behavior. Sometimes in private, sometimes in public, sometimes he'd reveal personal answers and secrets to them. Basically, he was trying to be the Shiri Appleby character from "UnReal", manipulating all the contestants on the reality show to act a certain way, only he just, absolutely sucked at it. I don't blame him for that, nobody should be good at that job, but you know, he was trying to entice a confrontation where none really needed to exist. If anything, the group essentially came together at their frustration with him. 

He had biases, he seemed to insinuate some in the group would behave certain ways 'cause of their background.... I don't know what he truly thought would occur, but it's clear that whatever he was trying to study with this, was not what ended up happening. "The Raft" is a fascinating documentary into this forgotten minor chapter in modern social anthropology and a nice reminder of how sometimes a supposed scientific pursuit can really blind those into the real possible objectives behind such ideas, and the real effect they might have. It's a strange little movie, but I can't help but be fascinated by this. It's one of those ideas that you wondered about whether it's joke about now, but might've been taken completely seriously at the time, except it wasn't; it was a joke even then. But they did find out some stuff. No real scientific experiment is a failure after all, and they found out a lot of what not to do into studying the origin of violence in this raft. 

No comments: