I Am Woman


Hear her roar.

(2019) Music Biography (Quiver)Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Evan Peters, Danielle Macdonald, Matty Gardarople, Jordan Roskopoulos, Molly Broadstock, Gus Murray, Dusty Sorg, Rita Rani Ahuja, Michael-Anthony Taylor, Scout Bowman, Liam Douglas, Coco Greenstone, Gregg Arthur, Nicola Frew, Shakila Zab, Katerina Tsompanis, Frank Violi, Maddison-Cleo Musumeci. Directed by Unjoo Moon

It is hard to overstate the importance of Helen Reddy to pop culture. Most people know her through her iconic “I Am Woman,” essentially the unofficial anthem of the women’s movement, but in the mid to late 70s she had a string of hits that made her one of the most popular performers in the world.

It wasn’t always that way. When Reddy (Cobham-Hervey) won a singing contest in her native Australia, the prize was a recording contract for Mercury Records. She arrived in New York City with her three-year-old daughter in tow, only to discover that the misogynist executives at Mercury had no intention of honoring the contract. One must wonder how many heads rolled after Reddy achieved her international superstardom.,

She decided to give it a go in the US and moved in a roach-infested apartment, paying the rent (barely) with cocktail lounge singing gigs. She was befriended by fellow Aussie and influential rock critic Lillian Roxon (Macdonald) who championed her career. At a rent party, she met Jeff Wald (Peters), an aspiring talent manager. She eventually married him, and the expectation was that he would manage her career and get her that elusive record contract, but he needed to establish himself first.

Frustrated by his lack of support, she finally forced him to work harder to get her signed which finally happened. After a couple of minor hits, “I Am Woman” came out in 1974 and swept the charts, winning her a Grammy (where she famously thanked God, because “she makes all things possible”) and began a string of hits including “Leave Me Alone,” and “Angie Baby.”

In the meantime, her close friend Roxon had passed away after a severe asthma attack and hubby Jeff had blown most of her fortune on cocaine. She eventually would divorce him, and her career came essentially to an end, although that really isn’t covered in the film.

In fact, a lot of things aren’t covered in the film. Moon is apparently a friend of Reddy (whom she met at an awards show) but delivered a very basic version of her biography. We see none of her ex-husband’s attempts to sabotage her career after their divorce, nor do we see much of her creative process. Mostly what we see is her early struggles and then her marital problems later on. You’re given a sense of her status of a feminist icon, but we never get a sense of what Helen herself thought of this.

Cobham-Hervey has a good deal of presence in the role of Reddy but it oddly doesn’t manifest in the concert footage. For the most part, Cobham-Hervey performs with a bemused smirk on her face; I never saw Reddy live myself but I understand she was a dynamic performer in her heyday. There’s no sense of that here, nor of her flinty sense of humor which characterized her entire career.

I also think it was a major mistake for the production to use Aussie performer Chelsea Cullen to dub Reddy’s voice – people are coming not just to see a biopic on her life but to hear her music as well. While Cullen does a decent job mimicking her phrasing and style, I think most people watching the movie are going to miss her actual vocals. If you’re going to make a biography of a singer, you should get the rights to use their actual voice. See Bohemian Rhapsody for an example.

This is the kind of movie that will end up being damned by faint praise. The heart is in the right place, but the execution is lacking. This feels like a Behind the Music version of a pop icon’s life story, and it leaves the viewer feeling distinctly unsatisfied. However, Reddy’s importance both to pop music and to pop culture make this a worthwhile venture, albeit one that could have been a much better film.

REASONS TO SEE: Cobham-Hervey has great presence as Reddy in the non-performance sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: Cobham-Hervey is strangely distance in the performance sequences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Unjoo Moon and cinematographer Dion Beebe are married in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Microsoft, Redbox
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews: Metacritic: 56/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Runaways
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Hollywood Fringe

Cured


LGBTQ rights are human rights.

(2020) Documentary (Story Center) Barbara Gittings, Dr. Frank Kameny, Kay Latusen, Lawrence Hartmann, Ron Gold, Dr. Richard Pillard, Charles Silverstein, Richard Socarides, Don Kilhefner, Rick Stokes, Dr. John Fryer, Gary Alinder, Richard Green, Sally Duplaix, Harry Adamson, Robert Campbell, Dr. Saul Levin, Evelyn Hooker Directed by Patrick Sammon and Bennett Singer

In an era when progressive politics have taken a beating and there seems little for liberals to feel good about, one thing that is a case close to the heart of every self-respecting leftie is LGBTQ rights. It wasn’t that long ago where staying in the closet meant survival; people who came out were hounded, their careers were ruined, they became pariahs and outcasts. Gay men and women weren’t allowed to be teachers; many of them weren’t allowed to attend church. They certainly weren’t allowed to marry people of the same sex.

Part of the issue was that homosexuality was classified as a mental illness. Gay men and lesbians were treated using psychotherapy and sometimes more barbaric methods, including shock treatment and aversion therapy. The monolithic American Psychiatric Association, comprised mainly of older white men – had decreed it so and in their official manual of mental illnesses. This label perpetuated discrimination against the LGBTQ community and early leaders such as Dr. Frank Kameny of the Mattachine Society and Barbara Gittings of the Daughters of Bilitis realized until this changed, they would never be able to achieve equality in this society. To make this change meant they had to change the minds of the APA and with doctors like Charles Socarides at the forefront, there didn’t appear to be much chance of that.

However, as those leaders looked into it, the case for the APA began to look extraordinarily thin without nearly any backing evidence. In the meantime, researchers were discovering evidence using approved scientific methodology that homosexuality was far from being a mental disease but a healthy expression of sexuality.

The fight wasn’t an easy one and those early pioneers were risking everything to be involved in the fight. It was a serious career risk to even be identified as an ally of homosexuals and people could end up without a career, or worse. But some people did step out of the shadows and into the light, and they did pay the consequences but for the most part, these people became heroes in the early gay liberation movement and helped pave the way for the kind of acceptance that the LGBTQ has gotten from mainstream America that was unthinkable even a decade ago. While there is still plenty of way to go, this documentary shows in a well-thought-out manner how that fight took shape, with plenty of archival footage, interviews both contemporary and recent with those that took part in changing the mind of the APA (which finally happened in 1973) and those descended from the principals who are no longer with us, like Barbara Gittings’ partner Kay Latusen, and Richard Socarides, the son of the psychiatrist most vehemently against declassifying homosexuality as a mental illness – and, ironically, gay himself.

The movie celebrates people of courage both gay and straight who are largely forgotten by the mainstream society, but nevertheless are as important to the LGBTQ equality movement as Dr. Martin Luther King and Rep. John Lewis were to the African-American civil rights movement. Given that the gains of the last ten years are threatened by a strengthening conservative and evangelical segment of our society, these people should be remembered in order to inspire others to step forward and take up their torch.

The film recently played Outfest, the most prestigious LGBTQ-centric film festival in the world. It is also scheduled for Outshine, the Miami LGBTQ film festival in the coming week. While the movie doesn’t have a distributor (yet), it will continue to play festivals and special screenings. Keep an eye out for it.

REASONS TO SEE: Told in a methodical and intelligent manner. Reminds us of some forgotten heroes. A timely reminder of how far the LGBTQ movement has come.
REASONS TO AVOID: Needed to clarify the direct line from declassifying as a mental illness to the right to marry triumph for those whose sense of history is not acute.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as some disturbing imagery of shock therapy.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The American Psychiatry Association first classified homosexual as a mental illness in 1952.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/31/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: For the Bible Tells Me So
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Centigrade

The Prince (El princípe)


Jaime and Ricardo in better times.

(2019) Drama (ArtsploitationJuan Carlos Maldonado, Alfredo Castro, Lucas Balmaceda, Sebastián Ayala, Cesare Serra, Catalina Martin, José Antonio Raffo, Paola Volpato, Nicolás Zárate, Paula Zuñiga. Directed by Sebastián Muñoz

 

The thing about prison movies is that they lend themselves to exploitation. Very rarely do we get anything set in a prison that is thought-provoking without it sinking into a morass of sexuality and violence.

In this Chilean film, there is certainly a lot of sex. Jaime (Maldonado), described in the press materials as a “hot-tempered narcissist,” impulsively stabs someone to death and ends up imprisoned. This is during the Pinochet regime in Chile, one of the most brutal and repressive governments ever, so don’t expect a whole lot of rehabilitation going on here. In fact, once he’s thrown into the hellhole, the key is neatly disposed of and he’s expected to rot, or end up dead.

But the thing about Jaime is that he’s a resilient sort and the thing he has going for him most is that he’s a really good-looking guy. That’s why the BMIP (Big Man in Prison), Potro (Castro), latches on to Jaime and makes him his boy toy. This doesn’t sit well with his previous plaything, who snidely dubs Jaime as “The Prince” and the nickname sticks.

The relationship between Jaime and Potro is bittersweet; Potro may have swagger out in the yard but deep down inside he yearns for prison and is this close to breaking. The brutal, sadistic guards don’t make life any easier for the men in the cell block, which actually ends up suiting Jaime just fine. The trajectories of the two men are aimed in the same direction for a time, but it becomes clear that they are headed in different directions, which isn’t going to be good news for one of them.

Muñoz interweaves what’s going on in the prison with flashbacks to Jaime’s life before he murdered someone. We see his previous relationship with Ricardo (Zárate) and see in it a parallel. This isn’t about freedom; it’s about how we tend to follow the same paths over and over again.

There is a good deal of gay sex, but don’t expect flowers and rainbows. It’s brutal and joyless, all about release and power. Even when we see Jaime having sex with a woman earlier in the film, the sex is still the same – absolutely no desire to satisfy his partner so long as he himself gets off. When he gets what he wants, he’s gone. That element is also present in the sexual encounters in prison. There’s nothing sexy about it, although I’m sure there are a lot of straight women who will nod knowingly at the site – and more than a few gay men as well. The sex begins to become a numbing agent, but then again, what are you going to do with your time in prison.

Maldonado is certainly a handsome man, but his portrayal of Jaime is extremely low-key. There isn’t a lot of depth to the character; we know he’s self-involved, we know he is all about the booty call, we know he’s not terribly bright. Beyond that, it feels like he’s just treading water as an actor, which isn’t what you want from a lead performance. In a lot of ways Castro, who starred in one of Chile’s most honored films (Tony Manero), gives Potro the depth that Jaime lacks. I think Jaime is supposed to be the protagonist, but he ends up being almost secondary in his own story. That’s kind of an odd feeling, and I’m not sure if the decision to make it so was a conscious one by Muñoz or if Castro is just that good an actor. A little bit of both, I suspect.

Prudes and those made uncomfortable by gay sex will not like this much. There is a lot to unpack here and that’s okay, but still I ended up wishing that Maldonado had given us more to hang our hats on with Jaime. A little bit more depth here and this would have been an extraordinary film, instead of just an ordinary one.

REASONS TO SEE: Castro is an incendiary presence.
REASONS TO AVOID: Jaime doesn’t have enough depth as a character to carry the film.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a ton of male on male sex, graphic nudity, rape, profanity, violence and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film as a director for Muñoz; his background is as in art direction.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Prophet
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Medicine

The Ghost of Peter Sellers


A comic genius lost at sea.

(2018) Documentary (1091Peter Medak, Peter Sellers, Joe Dunne, Spike Milligan, Nora Farnes, Simon van der Burgh, Louis M. Heyward, Susan Wood, John Heyman, Liza Minelli, David Korda, Ruth Myers, Robin Dalton, Costas Evagorou, Murray Melvin, Costas Demetriou, Tony Greenberg, Dennis Fraser, Piers Haggard, Robert Wagner, Anthony Franciosa, Rita Franciosa. Directed by Peter Medak

 

We Americans love a winner. What movies do we go see? The box office champions. We figure if everyone else wants to see it, it must be good. Still, there is something fascinating about a colossal failure – it brings the rubberneck instinct in all of us.

The thing is, Ghost in the Noonday Sun is not even a legendary failure like Heaven’s Gate or Ishtar. Maybe it should have been – it had everything going for it. It’s director, Peter Medak, was fresh off The Ruling Class and was considered one of the brightest young directors in Hollywood. The star, Peter Sellers, was widely acknowledged as a comic genius and perhaps one of the greatest comic actors ever. His buddy from The Goon Show, Spike Milligan, had written a script for a pirate movie. The production would be based in Cyprus and the producers built a working pirate ship for the movie. What could go wrong? Pretty much everything.

They should have gotten the hint when the pirate ship was run into a dock and sank on the first day of production. “We were cursed from Day One,” intones producer, the late John Heyman. It was 1973 though; excess was not a problem. Hollywood was thriving, after all. But there were signs, according to Medak.

Sellers had personally recruited Medak to the project and for his part Medak jumped at the chance to work with a legitimate genius. However, just before production started, Sellers had split with girlfriend Liza Minelli and was, as Medak puts it, “catatonically depressed.” He hadn’t read the script but once he read it, he realized that the movie was a disaster waiting to happen and instantly became focused on getting out of doing it. He went to the lengths of faking a heart attack (he had a well-documented heart condition that would eventually kill him seven years later). Sellers fired producers right and left, only showed up to the set when he felt like it, and alienated virtually everyone. He tried to have Medak fired, had such a vitriolic row with co-star Anthony Franciosa that neither actor was willing to appear in the same frame together.

Medak eventually completed the film and when he went to the wrap party, nobody from his own film was there; only a couple of technicians from another film working on the island. The studio (Columbia) deemed it unreleasable when they got it and it stayed on the shelf until it got an unheralded home video release on VHS. It’s not hailed as a lost treasure, nor is it even remembered as a massive failure. It’s just…ignored. Still, it was enough to destroy Medak’s confidence in himself, and derail his career; he wouldn’t direct another film for five years and he would rarely get the opportunities to direct high-profile films ever again, even though he did some decent movies like The Krays and Romeo is Bleeding as well as being regularly employed in television – he was unable to control his star so no studio would take a chance on a big-budget film with him ever again. Now in his mid-80s (he was 80 when this was filmed), the pain is very much still there. He breaks down a couple of times during the movie and clearly has issues letting go, even though Sellers’ former agent Nora Farnes gently implores him to, while Heyman, showing remarkable perspective, reminds him “it’s only a movie.”

Whether this turned out to be the catharsis he clearly intended it to be, only Medak knows. For the rest of us, it’s a deep dive into how a big movie can descend into absolute chaos, particularly when a mercurial star has way too much control. Medak has over the years kept a good deal of mementos from the movie; production logs, letters from Heyman urging him to get control of the situation or he would be fired, still pictures, home movies and yes, footage from the ill-fated film itself.

It turns out to be a fascinating exercise, perhaps more so for Medak and cinematic buffs than for the general public but it is to a large extent the equivalent of watching a train wreck. I don’t think movie sets are run quite the same way anymore and while situations like this one could conceivably happen again, producers generally have insurance policies that cover this kind of thing. Back then, nobody got paid if the movie didn’t get made, so despite the surreal chaos, Medak soldiered on, knowing that the end result would be catastrophe. But sometimes, the best revenge is survival.

REASONS TO SEE: Bittersweet but fascinating. A cautionary tale of how one person can hijack an entire production.
REASONS TO AVOID: May have limited appeal beyond cinema buffs
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sellers would go on to win an Oscar for Being There. He died in 1980 at age 54.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews, Metacritic: 73/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lost in La Mancha
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
House of Hummingbird

Sometimes Always Never (Triple Word Score)


This is the most English photo you will ever see.

(2019) Dramedy (Blue FoxBill Nighy, Sam Riley, Jenny Agutter, Alice Lowe, Tim McInnerny, John Westley, Oliver Sindcup, Louis Healy, Elia Grace Gregoire, Alan Williams, Ethne Browne, Alexei Sayle, Andrew Shim, Kadrolsha Ona Carole. Directed by Carl Hunter

 

Absence may make the heart grow fonder; it can also leave a massive hole. Sometimes, when someone exits from our lives, carrying on isn’t an option.

Alan (Nighy) is a retired tailor. Fastidious in all things, his great obsession is Scrabble; he loves words, and has an enviable vocabulary. During a particularly tense game, his 19-year-old son Michael walked out the door, never to return. Michael hasn’t made any attempt to make any sort of contact in the intervening years.

Now, he has been called to the Midlands to see if a body that has been discovered there is that of his lost son. Driving him there is his remaining son Peter (Riley). The car ride is quieter than it should be; Alan is more interested in playing online Scrabble than in conversing with the son who has remained, but it is frustrated that he can’t seem to communicate with his father.

While spending the night before seeing the coroner in the morning, Alan and Peter meet an older couple (McInnerny, Agutter) whom Alan maneuvers into a game of Scrabble; as it turns out, they’ve been called to view the same body, having a missing 19-year-old son of their own.

When the body proves to be not Michael, Alan goes to stay with Peter and his wife (Lowe) and son (Healy). He also suspects that the person he’s playing online Scrabble with and is eerily familiar strategy may be Michael, reaching out in his own way.

The humor is bone-dry and the overall tone is droll; this is a quintessential English movie for which Nighy is ideally cast. Nobody, but nobody does droll as well as Nighy. Riley has been a terrific actor for decades; it’s absolutely criminal that he isn’t a bigger star than he is. Once again, he does an inspiring turn here as a son who is frustrated with a father who seems to have more affection for the son that ran away than he does for the sun who is still there. He feels as if he is continually finishing in second place to the memory of Michael, and its an observation that has some merit.

First-time feature director Hunter, who has up to now primarily worked in the documentary field, utilizes this late 70s-set dramedy with bright colors and the somewhat dodgy hair and fashion of the era. Despite the era this is set in, the film still fields strangely modern. There is a period when Nighy is absent from the film, and the movie does lose momentum. Riley does his best, but he isn’t given the kind of material that Nighy is here. There is a third-act reveal that’s not entirely unexpected but still effective. Watch for it.

There’s a bit of Wes Anderson in the influences here and that’s not a bad thing. The movie is pleasant enough, but nothing that is going to particularly excite anyone – and it may be a bit too British for American audiences who may prefer a little less “Keep calm” and a little more “stiff upper lip.”

REASONS TO SEE: Nighy is perfect for the droll, dry tone.
REASONS TO AVOID: The balance between comedy and drama doesn’t quite work.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual references as well as some adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the course of  the film, Alan remarks that Marmite is not available in Canada. In fact, it is readily available there and has been for some time.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Theatrical Release
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/15/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews; Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Royal Tenenbaums
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Infiltrators

If Beale Street Could Talk


Love conquers all; even social injustice.

(2018) Drama (AnnapurnaKiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Paris, Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Diego Luna, Ed Skrein, Emily Rios, Finn Wittrock, Brian Tyree Henry, Dave Franco, Michael Beach, Aurora Collado, Kaden Byrd, Ethan Barrett, Milanni Mines, Ebony Obsidian, Dominique Thorne, Carl Parker, Shabazz Ray, Bobby Conte Thornton, Marcia Jean Kurtz. Directed by Barry Jenkins

 

James Baldwin is one of the greatest American authors of the 20th century, or of any other century for that matter; few authors captured the African-American experience with as much outrage, wit, joy, fury and dispassionate observation as he did. He was passionate and compassionate at once, writing prose that could easily have been poetry; of all the authors I’ve read in my life, only Shakespeare fares as well when read aloud as Baldwin does. He had a command of language that is rare and the fact that few of his books have been adapted for the big screen have almost as much to do with his lyrical prose as it does to the fact that his views were and are incendiary and perhaps unlikely to be embraced by white American audiences.

In this classic film, a pair of lovers – artist Fonny (James) and 19-year-old Tish (Layne) are stepping up their long-time relationship to the next level; they plan to get married. But when Tish discovers she is pregnant, the couple have already been separated – Fonny has been accused of rape by a Puerto Rican woman (Rios) who was manipulated into selecting Fonny out of a line-up by a malicious cop (Skrein) who had a bone to pick with Fonny. As is often the case with African-American men, he gets only the representation he can afford and ends up imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit.

Barry Jenkins, fresh off his Oscar-winning Moonlight, tells the story in a non-linear fashion, flashing back from the incarceration of Fonny to their developing relationship as children. Jenkins is becoming known as an actor’s director; if nothing else, he is a genius at extracting the best performances from his actors. Witness here, Regina King, playing Tish’s loving mother; when Tish informs her that she’s in a family way and not yet married, King – who with this movie rightfully took her place as one of the best actresses working today – displays maternal love and support with a minimum of dialogue and a maximum of gesture. She’s the mom everyone wishes they had, even those who have a mom like her.

That scene contrasts with Fonny’s hyper-religious mom (Ellis) being formed of her son’s girlfriend’s condition. The acid tongue comes out as she lashes out at the girl her son loves, growing in vitriol until her aghast husband (Beach) abruptly hits her, shocking Tish and her parents, who absolutely can’t believe what they’re seeing. The families are in complete contrast; one loving and supportive, the other judgmental and cold although the dad does his best.

The movie is supported by a stunning soundtrack that highlights the emotional landscapes that Baldwin and Jenkins paint. The result is a powerful portrait that is as timely now as it was then – which I’m sure wouldn’t surprise Baldwin at all, but would undoubtedly sadden him, as it should any thinking, compassionate person.

REASONS TO SEE: A impressive literate and intelligent script. King and Layne deliver high-powered performances. The soundtrack is really terrific.
REASONS TO AVOID: The non-linear storytelling is a bit tricky but it does pay off.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity as well as some sexual material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first trailer for the film was released on the 94th birthday of author James Baldwin, who wrote the original novel.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Plus, Hulu, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews; Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brian Banks
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
15 Years

Suspiria (2018)


Even the graceful may be made to look grotesque.

(2018) Horror (AmazonChloë Grace Moretz, Tilda Swinton, Doris Hick, Dakota Johnson, Mia Goth, Alek Wek, Jessica Harper, Renée Soutendijk, Malgosia Bela, Angela Winkler, Vanda Capriolo, Jessica Batut, Elena Fokina, Clementine Houdart, Ingrid Caven, Sylvie Testud, Fabrizia Sacchi, Brigitte Cuvelier, Christine Leboutte, Vincenza Modica, Halla Thordardottir. Directed by Luca Guadagnino

 

Those expecting to see a remake of the legendary Dario Argento 1977 horror classic of the same name will be very disappointed. Sure, there are a lot of elements in common with that film here.  But, as Guadagnino himself has said, this is more of an homage than a remake.

Susie (Johnson) is an American dancer, come to Berlin in 1977 to try out for a prestigious modern dance academy. The air in Berlin at the time is vibrant and terrifying; it is the era of the terrorism of the Baader-Meinhof gang, of the still-fresh scars of the Nazi regime, of the still-in-place Wall dividing the city and where David Bowie prowls around getting ready to record some of the most compelling work of his career.

The academy is cut off from all of that. Presided over by the icy Madame Blanc (Swinton), an acclaimed choreographer of modern dance who is preparing to present one of her most important postwar works, Volk and with her lead dancer, Patricia (Moretz) having had apparently a mental breakdown and disappeared, apparently into one of the radical groups floating around Berlin, Susie falls into that role. However, Patricia’s psychiatrist Dr. Klemperer (also played by Swinton, nearly unrecognizable under layers of latex and make-up) suspects that her delusions of magic and witchcraft are hiding something else just as sinister and goes about investigating her disappearance like an aging Ellery Queen.

Occasionally horror films come along with many layers designed to make you think and this is one of those films. It has polarized audiences and critics alike; there were several perfect scores given to the film on Metacritic and at least one zero. There is a definitely feminine viewpoint here; there are almost no male roles and the main one is played by a woman (Dr. Klemperer). The academy is a microcosm of divided Berlin, with two distinct camps – one led by Madame Blanc, the other by the equally mysterious Madame Markos (Swinton, again) with divergent points of view of how things ought to be run. The movie may be perceived to be feminist by some, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, but the feminism is less overt than you might think. Female bodies are not ogled over here and the movie is virtually sexless other than a few odd comments here and there. However, there is no mistaking the stance the film takes on the violence (both physical and otherwise) forced upon women by society, and the objectification of them in general.

There is violence here and some of it is intense. There is a scene in which Susie is rehearsing a scene from the piece while in another room, her movements are visited upon a dancer who has fallen out of favor (Fokina) in nauseating extremes; bones crack, tendons rip, organs are perforated. The sequence goes on for awhile and may be found to be excessive or even unendurable for those who are sensitive to such things.

There are some real nice touches here. Thom Yorke’s score is absolutely superb, one of the best I’ve heard in quite a while. The production design is also quite impressive, diametrically opposed to the original film, eschewing the vibrant color palate of the 1977 film for a more muted, almost drab and cold look. It works nicely given the tone of the film. There is also a cameo by Jessica Harper, star of the 1977 film, as the psychiatrist’s wife near the end of the film that adds a touch of grace.

However, the 2018 version is almost exactly an hour longer than the original and I really can’t find a justification for it. It also begins to go off the rails a bit in the third act although I suspect that many who would be offended by the arthouse aspect of it might have switched off long before then. That would be a shame though; this is a movie that looks at the experience of being a woman in an unflinching and sometimes brutal manner; it’s the kind of movie I would expect that someone like Rose McGowan would make. And maybe, should.

REASONS TO SEE: Gorgeous set design. Thom Yorke’s autumnal score is incredible.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a bit artsy-fartsy towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some graphic nudity and ritualistic violence including one death scene that is nauseatingly graphic, as well as some profanity including sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Yorke becomes the third member of Radiohead to segue into film scoring, following Jonny Greenwood and Phil Selway.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Uninvited
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Toxic Beauty

BlacKKKlansman


A different kind of hoodie.

(2018) True Life Drama (Focus) John David Washington Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Alec Baldwin, Frederick Weller, Topher Grace, Corey Hawkins, Ryan Eggold, Nicholas Turturro, Harry Belafonte, Gina Belafonte, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Ashlie Atkinson, Ato Blankson-Wood, Robert John Burke, Arthur Nascarella, Ken Garito, Damaris Lewis. Directed by Spike Lee

 

Spike Lee is the kind of director who tends to be ahead of his time; he has the uncanny ability to read the writing on the wall, particularly when it comes to race relations in America. His treatise on American racism in 2018 is cleverly couched in a based-on-actual-events dramedy set in the early 70s (although the actual events occurred in 1978).

Spike Lee is also the kind of director who doesn’t really care much about subtlety. Consequently, his films tend to make their points with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. Here, Ron Stallworth (Washington), the first black cop in the history of Colorado Springs, has been chafing at a desk job. He longs to get out into the field and make a difference. He is assigned to go undercover at a black student rally at nearby Colorado College. There, he falls for the fiery, passionate president of the chapter, Patrice (Harrier).

His assignment goes well so he joins the Intelligence Division of the CSPD. He decides to call the Ku Klux Klan and see if he can get a membership card – which to his bemusement, he does. But after repeated phone conversations with KKK head David Duke (Grace), he is given the opportunity to infiltrate the local KKK chapter. Knowing that his physical presence is impossible, he gets a surrogate; Jewish cop Flip Zimmerman (Driver).

Lee doesn’t miss an opportunity to draw parallels between the 1970s and now, as in having the KKK members shouting in unison “America First!” or a racist cop opining that a racist President will get into office by masking his racism in policies about immigration and taxation. And if you still don’t get the connection, Lee appended a coda showing the tragic events of Charlottesville that took place almost a year to the day of the film’s release but after the film was completed.

This is one of Lee’s best films ever. While I’m not so sure that making white extremists out to be ignorant buffoons is a wise choice – that’s how we ended up with our current President – there is plenty of humor to balance out the seriousness of the message. Lee also does an excellent job of capturing the era, from the outstanding score and soundtrack to the wonderfully awful fashions and massive Afros.

Lee also benefits from outstanding performances from Washington and Driver, as well as to a lesser extent Topher Grace as the clueless David Duke. The message is certainly one that bears repeating – that in nearly half a century we still haven’t made much headway. I don’t know that the people who need to get that message will necessarily be flocking to see BlacKKKlansman but even if the movie ends up preaching to the converted it is still well worth the effort to check it out.

REASONS TO SEE: Captures the era to near-perfection, thanks largely to a terrific score. Great performances by Washington and Driver.
REASONS TO AVOID: Heavy handed and lacks finesse.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity including racial epithets, a fair amount of violence (including sexual violence) and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film received six Oscar nominations including Best Picture and winning one for Best Adapted Screenplay.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/29/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews: Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mississippi Burning
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Uncut Gems

The Curse of La Llorona


Can I get an amen?!

(2019) Horror (New LineLinda Cardellini, Roman Christou, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, Raymond Cruz, Marisol Ramirez, Patricia Velasquez, Sean Patrick Thomas, Tony Amendola, Irene Keng, Oliver Alexander, Aiden Lewandowski, Paul Rodriguez, John Marshall Jones, Ricardo Mamood-Vega, Jayden Valdivia, Andrew Tinpo Lee, Madeleine McGraw, Sophia Santi. Directed by Michael Chaves

Hollywood has yet to mine the extremely fertile soil of Mexican, Central and South American folklore. Some mythic stories go back thousands of years to the Mayans, the Aztecs and other native cultures. Given how repetitive most Hollywood horror movies are, it would seem a slam dunk to try other sources for scares.

Anna (Cardellini) is a widow whose husband, an LAPD cop, died in the line of duty. She’s a social worker who often works with the cops, particularly close friend Detective Cooper (Thomas) who often supplies her with child endangerment cases. One such involves an apparently insane Hispanic mom (Velasquez) whose children have burn marks on their arms and are discovered locked in a closet surrounded by religious icons. This being a horror movie, it’s not the frantic mom who is responsible; it’s La Llorona, a.k.a. The Crying Woman, a 17th century beauty who in a fit of jealous rage drowned her two children when she discovered her husband had been unfaithful.

Now she’s after new children to replace her own little ones and she’s got her eye on Anna’s two kids (Christou and Kinchen). A kindly priest (Amendola), gun-shy after a recent brush with the supernatural, steers her to an ex-priest turned curandero (Cruz) who means to help Anna out by any means he can. However, La Llorona doesn’t take no for an answer easily.

The film is loosely tied to the Conjuring universe by the priest, who appeared in another spin-off that also didn’t involve the Warrens. This is the only movie to date in the Conjuring universe whose big bad didn’t appear in a previous movie which doesn’t hurt the movie as Chaves does a good job of setting the film up in the opening sequences of the film.

The actual La Llorona apparition is pretty cool, appearing often in billowing curtains or emerging from water. There are plenty of attempts to create a spooky atmosphere but too many jump scares ruin the broth. Cardellini is generally a proficient actress but she’s given little to work with here; her That ultimately comes off as colorless. Cruz fares a little bit better, offering a little comic relief.

The movie feels a little bit too much like a paint-by-numbers horror film trying to check all the boxes off on the scorecard. That’s a shame because there was certainly potential for a really whiz-bang horror film here. They got the technical end right; now if only they had the courage of their own convictions and allowed the main character to scare the bejeezus out of us.

REASONS TO SEE: The creature effects are pretty nifty.
REASONS TO AVOID: An overabundance of jump scares as well as an overabundance of child actor overacting..b
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of violence and plenty of scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Amendola reprises the role he played in Annabelle.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/31/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews: Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Legend of La Llorona
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness 2019 concludes!

Annabelle Comes Home


Chucky has got NOTHING on Annabelle!

(2019) Horror (New LineMcKenna Grace, Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Michael Cimino, Samara Lee, Kenzie Caplan, Sade Katarina, Michael Patrick McGill, Brittany Hoza, Sheila McKellan, Eddie J. Fernandez, Steve Coulter, Luca Luhan, Gary-7, Paul Dean, Alison White, Oliver Dauberman, Lou Lou Safran, Anthony Wernyss, Natalia Safran. Directed by Gary Dauberman

Not every doll is a toy. Some dolls are heirlooms; others are meant for adult collectors. Then, there are a very few who are cursed or possessed by murderous spirits. There is one, however, who acts as a magnet for malevolent spirit.

Demonologists Ed (Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Farmiga) have a roomful of cursed and possessed items they keep in a locked room. Of these, the most dangerous is Annabelle, a doll that serves as the aforementioned magnet. When she is not locked in a glass case that has been blessed by a priest, she can cause all kinds of mischief

When Ed and Lorraine have to leave on a job, they leave their young daughter Judy (Grace) under the care of sweet babysitter Mary Ellen (Iseman) whose friend Daniela (Sarife) is a bit less well-behaved. She manages to get herself into that forbidden room and in doing so unleashes hell. Suddenly the three girls are beset by all manner of malevolent entities. Surviving the night may well be impossible.

The seventh entry in the Conjuring shared movie universe is one of the strongest to date. Novice director Dauberman resists the temptation to rely on jump scares (although there are a few) and instead comes by his frights honestly. While at times, the movie does seem like a vehicle to establish future spin-offs for the franchise (I’m betting on a Ferryman and a Haunted bride film at the very least), the movie is powered largely by some strong performances by Grace, Iseman and Sarife – all of whom are given character depth and pluck. Dauberman also really sets the film in the 70s nicely; the fashions might make you cringe a little bit. Still, this is all very good fun and the kind of roller coaster ride I love in a horror movie.

REASONS TO SEE: Some very effective scares. The three female leads all do solid jobs.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels at times like they’re just creating future spin-offs.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of violence and horrific images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Lorraine Warren passed away two months before the film was released. The closing credits include a dedication to her.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews: Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Nun
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Parasite