Days of the Bagnold Summer


So many shoes…so little time.

(2019) Comedy (GreenwichMonica Dolan, Earl Cave, Rob Brydon, Elliot Speller-Grillott, Tamsin Greig, Ony Uhiara, Paul Michael Bradley, Alice Lowe, Grace Hogg-Robinson, Nathanael Saleh, George Wilkins, Alfie Todd, Tim Kay, Gurlaine Kaur Garcha, Sophie Steer, Lesley Harcourt, Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness, Stuart Whelan, Olivia Buckland.  Directed by Simon Bird

 

I suppose there are few tortures for a 15-year-old boy than spending a summer alone with his mom. That must go double if mom is a divorced cardigan-wearing librarian and the boy is into metal in a big way. How do two people so disparate find any sort of common ground?

That boy is Daniel (Cave), who has been anticipating a summer in Florida with his Dad – who has since remarried and has a new baby on the way with his new wife  – but Dad isn’t the most reliable sort to begin with, and the plans fall through. Trust me, Daniel – you are NOT ready for a summer in Florida with pasty white skin like that.

Daniel is now faced with the prospect of summer at home in a dull, boring British suburban existence with his mom Sue (Dolan) who might have been fun once upon a time, but her idea of a good time is going off to the seaside and attending a demonstration on how to make fudge.

Like most boys his age, Daniel knows only that he hurts and doesn’t know how to express it, so he takes out his rage on everyone by being an absolute douche to his mom. She reacts with patience and compassion. Sue has retreated into her own shell and is only beginning to emerge from it, going on a date with Daniel’s history teacher (Brydon, who should be legally required to do the “Man in a Box” voice in every movie he’s in) but he turns out to be a massive jerk.

The more the summer goes on, the more frustrated Daniel gets. His best friend Ky (Speller-Girllott) and he have a falling out. His attempts to join a metal band are frustrated again and again. And his mom insists on taking him shoe shopping for an upcoming wedding he plainly doesn’t want to attend. This is going to be a long summer.

The movie is based on a Joff Winterhart graphic novel and as adapted by Lisa Owens, it captures the nadir of teen angst that only a 15-year-old son of divorced parents can experience. Daniel is not the easiest kid to like, but deep down there’s a decent guy under there; his mom knows it and even though he drives her up a tree, she hangs in there and regards him with a certain sense of droll humor although from time to time she clearly wants to give him a good shaking. Sue isn’t perfect either, but she’s trying and she hasn’t exactly had the easiest time of things, as a poignant conversation with her son late in the film shows. Teens have a tendency to not realize their parents were once like them, full of dreams and aspirations, and trying to fit in, be cool and figure things out. Parents have a tendency to forget what it’s like to be those things in their zeal to have them avoid the same mistakes that they made.

The movie has a lovely bittersweet quality to it, and the dry British humor that tends to get me going every time. Bird further has the soundtrack full of Belle and Sebastian songs which would seem at first glance to be incongruous, but actually turns out to be the perfect fit. As we emerge from a long and difficult winter with the promise of a long and difficult summer ahead, movies like this can be a tonic, reminding us that there is something magic in the warm months. It’s not the memories of good times so much but the love of the people we are with that make the magic. It would do us all well to be reminded of that.

REASONS TO SEE: Great Belle and Sebastian songs. Nice dry British humor.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit on the vanilla side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity including some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bird is best-known for his work on the British television show The In-Betweeners.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Adult Life Skills
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Crisis

Nomadland


This is what mesmerizing performance looks like.

(2020) Drama (SearchlightFrances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells, Angela Reyes, Carl R. Hughes, Douglas G. Soul, Ryan Aquino, Bryce Bedsworth, Annette Webb, Teresa Buchanan, Karie Lynn McDermott Wilder, Gay DeForest, Patricia Grier, Makenzie Etcheverry, Rachel Bannon, Brandy Wilber, Suanne Carlson, Roxanne Bay, Sherita Deni Coker.  Directed by Chloé Zhao

 

Many people look at the Okies of the Depression, entire families who put all their belongings in their trucks and tried to find somewhere they could work and believe that those folk were a symptom of their times. What most Americans don’t know is that the economic realities of the 21st century have led to an entire new generation of rootless migrant workers, going from one seasonal job to the next, living out of their vans or in camps.

Fern (McDormand) has been hit by two catastrophes. First and foremost, her beloved husband Bo has died. To make matters worse, the gypsum mine in Empire, Nevada, where they were both employed, has shut down. Empire, being a company town, now has no work and has itself shut down. Fern has been thrown out of her company housing where she has lived for decades. She decides to gather what belongings she can fit and put them in a van where she makes herself as comfortable as possible, getting a temporary job at the Amazon Fulfillment Center for the Christmas rush. She is given free parking in a trailer park, paid for by Amazon. When the job goes away, so will the space.

She befriends a woman named Linda May (May) who urges her to attend a convocation of nomads in Arizona, to be presided over by nomad guru Bob Wells (Wells) who has garnered an impressive following with his pragmatic and imaginative videos of how to survive living out of a van. She tells the child of a close friend in Empire who asks her if she’s homeless, “Oh no, honey, I’m not homeless…I’m houseless!”

She is loathe to head out to Arizona but when finding more work proves fruitless, she changes her mid and drives down there. There she meets Dave (Strathairn), an old man who becomes sweet on her, and Swankie (Swankie), a veteran nomad who is dying of cancer and wants to see as many natural wonders as she can while she still can. Her impending fate doesn’t prevent her from remonstrating with Fern that she needs to be more pragmatic because they are in the middle of nowhere and there is nobody to help them if their van breaks down “You can die out here!”

Fern remains something of an enigma throughout the movie until near the end where we start to get the picture as to why she makes the choices that she does. McDormand, one of the most gifted actresses in the business with Oscars for Fargo and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and three other nominations. This film will undoubtedly give her a fourth, as she has already won this year’s Golden Globe for the role (the movie also won the Best Motion Picture, Drama Golden Globe at the recent awards ceremony). While Fern isn’t the most talkative person ever, her eyes are often haunted, staring out in the distance, her thoughts kept to herself but her eyes betraying her melancholy. She works hard and makes due without complaining, taking what joys she can where she can – like going skinny dipping by herself in a rock-strewn river in Colorado.

The one false note that the film strikes is the relationship between Fern and Dave. There is a sweetness to Dave, but Fern isn’t having it and that would be fine, except it feels like the relationship seems to be added on just to add romantic tension. The movie doesn’t need it.

Zhao utilizes the magnificent vistas of the prairies, the Rockies and the desert Southwest, taking Fern to a variety of jobs, from working the lunch counter at Wall Drug in South Dakota (a place to which I’ve actually been and it is so much more impressive than the film shows), a beet harvester in Nebraska, and a trailer park hostess in Arizona. She finds quiet moments of peace amongst concrete dinosaurs or under the stars. And despite Dave’s sweet advances, she seems content to remain on her own.

This is a slice of life that most Americans have no idea even exists, but the movie is based on a non-fiction book by journalist Jessica Bruder. While Zhao tends to leave details out of her film, there’s no doubt that this is a perilous way of life, especially now with so may more out of work than when the movie was filmed, let alone when it takes place (approximately 2011). People who have worked hard all their lives and couldn’t quite get ahead find themselves unable to afford a place to live in, forcing the to live from gig to gig. And what happens to them when they are no longer able to drive? It isn’t a question the movie asks but it was definitely on my mind, given that most of the characters in the film or either middle aged or elderly.

There is a lyricism here, a dignity that is all the more apparent because many of the actors in the film are non-professionals; they are actual nomads who live in their own fans. They, too, live with the specter that jobs aren’t guaranteed and that despite their willingness to work, they may get somewhere, find that the job they expected was already gone, and not be able to afford the gas to get them somewhere else. Most of these people have no health care insurance, so when people like Swankie get seriously ill, their only choice is to let nature take its course.

It seems impossible to believe that Americans can live like this in the 21st century; our nation is wealthy and prosperous, or so we’re told, but that’s only if you own the business. For those who toil in those businesses and make money for the 1%, their future may not be all too different than the one Fern faces.

REASONS TO SEE: McDormand gives another in a long line of outstanding performances. Gritty and realistic examination of American economic realities. Rings true as a human story. Honest in every way.
REASONS TO AVOID: The romance between Fern and Dave seemed forced.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some full-frontal nudity
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Zhan interviewed several real life nomads to get some informational background for the film; some of the more articulate interviewees were given roles playing fictional versions of themselves in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/1/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews; Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Leisure Seeker
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Days of the Bagnold Summer

Cowboys


There’s a reason they call it Big Sky country.

(2020) Drama (Goldwyn) Steve Zahn, Jillian Bell, Sasha Knight, Ann Dowd, Gary Farmer, Chris Coy, John Reynolds, Bob Stephenson, AJ Slaght, John Beasley, Seth Breding, Angela Marshall, Steve Dodd, Armando Garcia, Heather LaPointe, Jared Broxterman, Emily Moran, Matt Mhoon, Mari LaPlante, Sawyer Pule, Travis W. Bruyer, Michaela Dixon, Kasey Kurit, Lori Wubben. Directed by Anna Kerrigan

 

Montana has always been a beautiful place where rugged individualism has been admired, and where values are conservative and based on Judeo-Christian beliefs. It is an environment that, from time to time, has been unforgiving of those outside the norm.

At first blush, it appears that Troy (Zahn) and Joe (Knight) are on a father-son camping trip in the beautiful wilds of Montana. When Troy’s truck breaks down, the two end up staying the night at the home of Robert Spottedbird (Farmer), a friend who lends the two his horse. But it becomes clear that there is something not quite right with the scenario. We soon find out that Joe’s mother and Troy’s estranged wife Sally (Bell) has frantically discovered that Joe is missing from his bedroom and calls the police, putting dogged detective Faith (Dowd) on the case.

We are told the backstory to all this in flashbacks, how Joe was born a girl but is convinced that she was born in the wrong body. While Troy is willing to accept this, the more devout Sally is not. Sally, ever-pragmatic, also realizes that this kind of revelation is likely to get Joe bullied at best, and maybe something worse.

As the search for the two goes on, we find that Troy is not nearly a perfect father; he’s bi-polar, and while he’s pretty affable so long as he stays on his meds, he’s prone to fits of rage, one of which in the defense of his son lands him in jail and leads to Sally separating from him. However, the more time Joe spends with Sally, the more he realizes that his mother will never let him be who he is meant to be, couching her denial in terms of “God’s plan.” It is a refrain many transgender folk have heard all too often.

Sally knows that Troy is unreliable, and the longer she is separated from Joe, the more she realizes her own role in his being gone. She also realizes that the longer this goes on, the less likely it is that Troy will come out of this unharmed. As Troy and Joe navigate the wilderness, Joe’s love for cowboys and the cowboy mythology begins to crumble as he realizes that his father, who once seemed to be his only option, might not be competent enough to get them both to Canada – and that Troy has absolutely no plan whatsoever once the two arrive there.

This is a timely movie, inasmuch as it was released a couple of weeks before the House of Representatives passed the Equality Act, a sweeping reform that would insure the rights of transgenders and other LGBTQ citizens (it faces an uphill battle to pass in the Senate where it will need 60 votes). Kerrigan makes the most of the beautiful Big Sky scenery captured by cinematographer John Wakayama Carey, giving us breathtaking vistas and moments of exquisite natural beauty. There are also moments of ugliness, as townspeople come down on Joe and his desire to be male.

The four major roles of Troy, Joe, Sally and Faith are all perfectly cast and Kerrigan gets some outstanding performances from all of them. Bell and Zahn are generally noted for their comedic roles, but both handle the drama here with aplomb, with Zahn giving an absolutely outstanding performance that is sure to bring him some meatier parts in the future. Knight, as Joe, conveys a bittersweet melancholy and world-weary wisdom that belies his character’s years; one can imagine that it would be awful to have to deal with two damaged parents as well as his own issues of sexual identity. Knight’s performance should provide a role model for kids in that situation everywhere.

This is not a movie with easy answers; there are no white hats here (nor are there black hats either). Both Sally and Troy are flawed human beings doing the best that they can and the love they have for Joe is absolutely palpable. There is no doubt that this is, already, one of the year’s best films and should give families undergoing similar issues a starting place for necessary conversations.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautiful scenery. Zahn is as good as he’s ever been and Knight is a revelation. Some moments of heart-rending pathos.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit on the predictable side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kerrigan insisted that the role of Joe be filled by a trans/gender-fluid actor, which Sasha Knight is.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Kid Like Jake
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Nomadland

Bliss (2021)


Skating through life.

(2021) Science Fiction (Amazon Owen Wilson, Salma Hayek, Nesta Cooper, Jorge Landeborg Jr., Ronny Chieng, Steve Zissis, Josh Leonard, Madeline Zima, Bill Nye, Slavoj Zizek, DeRon Horton, Eugene Young, Dayne Catalano, Adam William Zastrow, Lora Lee, Darin Cooper, Roberto Montesinos, Kosah Rukavina, Tanya Alexander, Debbie Fan. Directed by Mike Cahill

In a speech in 1977, science fiction author Philip K. Dick posited the idea that the world we live in is not reality but a computer simulation, predating The Matrix by more than a decade. But what is reality, exactly? If our senses can be manipulated, who’s to say that what reality is may not necessarily be what we perceive it to be?

The reality that Greg Whittle (Wilson) lives in isn’t too appealing. He works in a phone bank whose drones endlessly apologize to callers for whatever technical difficulties they may be experiencing without offering any sort of solution to fix it. Greg is a professional apologist and he’s not even that good at it; much of his time is spent daydreaming, doodling a beautiful palatial mansion that he could never possibly afford to live in unless he had a rich trillionaire uncle that he didn’t know about.

His doodling hasn’t gone unnoticed and he is called into his boss’ office where his employment is terminated. However, when Greg accidentally kills his boss, he panics, hiding the body and running across the street to a bar for a cocktail to calm his nerves. There he meets Isabel (Hayek), an apparently  homeless woman with a fantastic story; the reality that Greg is in is a computer construct and most of the people, including Greg’s boss, aren’t real. Because Isabel is real, she can manipulate the computer program by ingesting yellow crystals through the nose, and to prove it to him, manipulates reality to make it appear as if what happened to Greg’s boss was a suicide.

At last, Isabel takes Greg into the real world, accessed by means of ingesting the much rarer blue crystals – so rare that they are unable to get the full dosage needed for both of them to remain in the real world. There, Greg finds a Utopia where poverty has been eradicated, labor is done mainly by mechanical means and most people live a life of leisure devoted to artistic and scientific pursuits. The home that Greg has been doodling turns out to be the place where he lives. But because they were unable to get the full dose of blue crystals, Isabel and Greg need to return into the computer-generated world to acquire a full dosage – plus there’s the matter of Greg’s daughter Emily (Cooper) who isn’t real, but whom Greg is devoted to nonetheless. In the end, Isabel and Greg are only able to gather enough blue crystals to send one of them back to Utopia. Which one will stay?

Bliss is meant to be a 103 minute mindfuck, meant to make you try to figure out which reality was real and which was the simulation – or maybe both of them are simulations. Or maybe both of them are real. You can get a real headache trying to keep it straight.

It’s a great premise, but unfortunately the execution is weak. For one thing, there seems to have been some fudging on the science and the economics; for example, one of the reasons poverty has been eliminated was that asteroid mining brought an influx of new wealth into the global economy, but if you study economic history (as in 17th century Spain, for example) you will realize that kind of influx of wealth tends to bring ruinous inflation that actually wrecks the economy. And the likelihood that those who made trillions of dollars from the ining enterprise would then donate an annual salary of half a million dollars a year to every living adult is so unlikely to occur as to be virtually impossible.

Also, while Wilson and Hayek are both talented individually, they don’t mesh well together here. Wilson’s laid-back persona almost necessitates some kind of balancing counter-performance and so Hayek seems compelled to get almost shrill in order to bring some energy to the proceedings. And considering that they are supposed to be soulmates, you never feel any sort of attraction between the two of them. I give points for Wilson doing the type of role he doesn’t take on very often, but unfortunately it isn’t enough here.

The ending, which I won’t reveal here, also feels largely unearned and unsatisfying. This is a movie with plenty of good ideas, but they don’t seem to have been thought out very well. Cahill has a tendency to overexplain (we spend an inordinate amount of time hearing about the various efficacies of the crystals and why they need to be snorted and not eaten) and at times it gets in the way of the story. Sometimes, it’s better to just say “this is the way things are in this world” and let the audience fill in the blanks.

REASONS TO SEE: Wilson tackles a role outside his comfort zone.
REASONS TO AVOID: The science doesn’t appear to have been very well thought-out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a fair amount of violence and some scenes of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cahill studied economics at Georgetown; while a student there he struck up a friendship with future actress Brit Marling.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews; Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Matrix
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Cowboys

Happy Times (2019)


Dinner parties can be SOOO stressful…

(2019) Horror (Artsploitation) Liraz Chamami, Michael Aloni, Iris Bahr, Alon Pdut, Stéfi Celma, Guy Adler, Ido Mohr, Daniel Lavid, Shani Atlas, Sophia Santi, Mike Burstyn, Kevin Thomas, Rigo Obezo.  Directed by Michael Mayer

 

What could be more civilized than a gathering of friends and family for a dinner party? Breaking bread with those we care about is one of the nicer parts of being human, something many of us have been missing during the pandemic. However, one look at this dinner party and we might want to embrace social distancing to a much more restrictive degree.

Boorish businessman Yossi (Mohr) and his elegant trophy wife Sigal (Chamami) are Israeli ex-pats living in Southern California. They host a post-Sabbath dinner at their McMansion in the Hollywood Hills, sending the kids away with a heartfelt “Good riddance!” (now, there’s my kind of mom) giving the adults room to party.

Attending the party is Yossi’s business partner, contractor Ilan (Adler) and his girlfriend Noya (Atlas), business executive Avner (Pdut) and his wife Hila (Bahr) who gave up a law career to start a family, and cousin Maor (Lavid) who came stag. Aspiring  actor Michael (Aloni) – Sigal’s beloved cousin who is essentially maligned by the rest of the group – arrives  last with his African-American girlfriend Aliyah (Celma).

Soon, long-simmering resentments begin to leak to the surface and despite Sigal’s best efforts to keep everything sociable, the addition of  black sheep Michael who seems hell-bent on irritating absolutely everybody brings things to a boiling point. Buttons are pushed. Punches are thrown. People are knocked out. Dick pics are taken. Panties are stolen. Accusations are hurled. Bullets fly. Cops arrive. Cops leave. Things get much, much worse.

There is a ghoulish pleasure in watching a dinner party of snobby, shallow rich people turn into a Tarantino climax and you can almost feel Mayer’s glee at staging it. None of the characters onscreen (with the possible exceptions of Aliyah and the rabbi (Burstyn) who shows up in the third act) have any redeeming qualities at all. None of the relationships here seem to be healthy in any way, shape or form except for maybe Sigal and Michael in which there seems to be at least some genuine affection.

There’s a lot of dark humor here, with writers Guy Ayal and Mayer injecting commentary on the shallow nature of Hollywood elites as well as the macho posturing of Israeli men. Even Israeli women don’t go unscathed as the Israeli women here are largely pretty nasty pieces of work with plenty of repressed fury.

There is plenty of blood and carnage, although the murders aren’t particularly inventive. Then again, most of them are crimes of opportunity and passion. Someone gets pushed to the breaking point and grabs whatever is at hand, be it a heavy blunt object or an antique crossbow. Someone even gets stuffed into a kiln.

The mostly-Israeli actors are extremely strong here, with Chamami and Aloni getting the lions share of the moments to remember. However, Pdut has his own share of moments as the businessman hiding PTSD from his time in the compulsory Israeli military service. The movie, though, falls in between niches; it’s not really the kind of horror film that is going to invite raves in the horror film community, and it is a little bit too genre for the arthouse crowd. It also forces the audience to sit through about 45 minutes of a dinner party of unpleasant people before getting to the good stuff, which may try the patience of many. Still, the last half of the movie does move at a pretty good clip, so those who like their mayhem with a side of Jewish gestalt will get their money’s worth here.

REASONS TO SEE: Skewers both shallow Hollywood culture and macho Israeli ethos. A stellar dark comedy.
REASONS TO AVOID: Takes a very long time to get going.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence, gore and mayhem, plenty of profanity, some sexual situations and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Melder.“ from the HAM radio handle that Eva uses, is German for “reports.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vimeo, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Perfect Host
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Bliss

Dead Air (2021)


Breaker! Breaker!

(2021) Thriller (FreestyleKevin Hicks, Vickie Hicks, Chris Xavier, Luca Iacovetti, Madison Skodzinsky, Mackenzie Skodzinsky, Ryan C. Mitchell, Mark Skodzinsky.  Directed by Kevin Hicks

 

What happens to the voices that go out over the airwaves? Do they just fade and dissipate into the ether, or do they carry forever, bouncing around the cosmos, giving a kind of immortality to those who have used HAM radios or broadcast radios? Makes you think.

William (K. Hicks) has known his share of tragedy. His father (Mitchell) died when he was young; his wife passed away from leukemia not long ago, leaving him with two teen daughters (the Skodzinsky sisters) to raise by himself. His mother has also recently passed, and left him a pile of boxes of old junk to sift through. In one box, he finds his dad’s old HAM radio apparatus. On a whim, he decides to give it a whirl.

To his surprise, he makes contact with Eva (V. Hicks), a lonely woman with a touch of paranoia and more than a touch of agoraphobia. She lives in what appears to be a bunker-like basement, and spends most of her day chatting on the radio. The two strike up a friendship despite some wariness on Eva’s part brought on by William’s cheerful curiosity.

But William has some issues of his own, mostly dealing with some traumatic repressed memories. He’s seeing a psychiatrist (Xavier) who is pushing for hypnotherapy which William is resistant to. But as he finds opening up to Eva is emboldening him, he agrees to be hypnotized and what he discovers about his past, and it’s connection to Eva, will change his life forever.

This microbudget indie thriller is billed as a horror movie, but it really isn’t. There are some supernatural elements, yes, but nothing really scary as such. Vickie Hicks wrote this and Kevin directed it; both elected to star in it, giving it a kind of home movie “let’s put on a show!” vibe, but their enthusiasm doesn’t translate to the screen. The acting is largely stiff and low-energy and the dialogue doesn’t help matters.

Thrillers almost demand twists and there are a few here, but by and large they’re fairly predictable, particularly if you’ve seen the trailer which I don’t recommend that you do if you’re going to watch this; the experience will be much better if you go in without any idea of what’s going on. While Kevin Hicks does a pretty decent job of building up suspense, he loses marks because much of the movie’s payoff is telegraphed in advance. This is the kind of movie that you watch once, and forget quickly.

REASONS TO SEE: Does a decent job of establishing a suspenseful aura.
REASONS TO AVOID: The acting and dialogue are both subpar.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Melder.“ from the HAM radio handle that Eva uses, is German for “reports.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frequency
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Happy Times

Judas and the Black Messiah


Fred Hampton preaches to the choir.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Warner BrothersDaniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemmons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Dominique Thorne, Martin Sheen, Amari Cheatom, Khris Davis, Ian Duff, Caleb Everhardt, Robert Longstreet, Amber Chardae Robinson, Ikechukwu Ufomadu, James Udom, Nick Fink, Alysia Joy Powell.  Directed by Shaka King

 

When discussing the civil rights struggles of the late Fifties and into the Sixties and Seventies, a pantheon of names stand out, from Rosa Parks to Medgar Evers to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to Malcom X. One of the names much less known is Fred Hampton, but his contribution bears repeating.

In the late 1960s, the Black Panther party has risen as both a community organization and a political organization. Dedicated to the idea of revolution, the party was eyed with suspicion and terror by white America; the press demonized them (often at the behest of the FBI, whose openly racist director had tentacles throughout the civil rights movement) to the point that even today, they are much misunderstood and often looked upon as little more than terrorists by the white community.

Fred Hampton (Kaluuya) was a young star of the Illinois chapter of the Panthers. Intellectually gifted and a skilled orator, he had a wealth of compassion for the black community, helping to organize meals for hungry children and emphasizing education to them. However, he also was dedicated to the systematic dismantling of the society that had enslaved his people, and now even a century later was keeping them down through means both legal and otherwise. He espoused a turn to communism, which also earned the ire of J. Edgar Hoover (Sheen), who was not only racist but a fervent anti-communist to the point of hysteria.

William O’Neal (Stanfield) was a petty crook who attempted to swindle by impersonating an FBI agent. His lies seen through, he was caught and remanded to the actual FBI. Agent Roy Mitchell (Plemmons) gives O’Neal a choice; a long stint in prison for car theft and impersonating a federal agent, or have his record expunged and get paid for infiltrating the Black Panthers. O’Neal took the second route.

Rising through the ranks even as Hampton does, he sees Hampton become chairman of the party while he himself becomes a security operative. As 1969 comes to a close, he is asked by the FBI to give a detailed layout of Hampton’s apartment that he shares with his girlfriend Deborah Johnson (Fishback), a speechwriter for the Panthers who is also pregnant with his child. O’Neal slips some phenobarbital into Hampton’s drink, insuring that the Black Panther leader will be groggy and unable to defend himself with what was to come. On December 4, 1969, the Chicago Police carried out a raid on the apartment and in the process, both Hampton and one other member of the Panthers was killed. It was nothing less than an execution, an assassination carried out by our own government.

The film is bookended by two clips; first, one of Stanfield as O’Neal, being interviewed for a 1990 PBS documentary, then the actual documentary footage of O’Neal, talking about his role in the death of Hampton. It is one of those mesmerizing cinematic moments in which the reel turns to the real. The movie has a few moments like this, most notably when Johnson talks to Hampton about how their impending parenthood must change the nature of their political activity. It is a haunting moment, given that Johnson would give birth to Hampton’s son twenty-five days after his murder.

The movie is blessed with some masterful performances, particularly from Kaluuya who is turning into one of the finest actors of this generation (he was nominated for a Golden Globe for his efforts) and Stanfield, who makes somewhat sympathetic the role of O’Neal, who finds himself way over his head. Fishback has that amazing scene referred to earlier and serves notice that she, too, will be a force to be reckoned with, and Plemmons does some of the best work of his career as the manipulative (and manipulated) Mitchell.

The last half of the movie is absolutely riveting, and even if you know the story – which many Americans do not – the tension is palpable. It’s the first half of the movie where I have the harder time. It’s a bit disjointed and confusing, and takes a little too long in setting the stage. At times, King (who also co-wrote the script) seems to be more concerned about editorializing rather than telling the story, which doesn’t need it. Any good American should be outraged at the FBI’s clear abuse of their power, and the fact that all those involved essentially got away with the crime is all the more galling (a civil suit brought by Johnson and her son was settled after 12 years, one of the longest civil trials in U.S. history.

Hampton was by all accounts a superb organizer and coalition builder which was why he was so threatening to the white establishment. Had he survived (he was only 21 years old when he died), he might well have turned the Black Panthers into a political force; the rainbow coalition that Jesse Jackson would later extol was something Hampton actually came up with. At the time of his death, he had created alliances with Hispanic political organizations, white leftists and African-American street gangs. His oratory ability was not unlike Martin Luther King’s and Kaluuya gives us a hint of his fiery delivery (if you want to see the real thing, there are several of his speches on YouTube). You may not necessarily agree with his political beliefs (he was a fervent communist) but it is clear that his loss was incalculable to the African-American community. One wonders that had he lived that maybe – just maybe – some of the racial issues that continue to divide this nation might not have been laid to rest. Or maybe, given his tendency to promote violence as a solution, they might actually be worse. We will never know.

REASONS TO SEE: The second half of the film is extremely compelling.
REASONS TO AVOID: The first half of the film is absolutely forgettable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of profanity, some sexuality and disturbing violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kaluuya, Stanfield and Howery all worked together previously on Get Out.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (until March 11)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews, Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Malcolm X
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Dead Air

Take Me to Tarzana


Making plans over a single generic beer; now THAT’S living the high life!

(2021) Comedy (GravitasJonathan Bennett, Maria Conchita Alonso, Samantha Robinson, Oliver Cooper, Kahyun Kim, Andrew Creer, Owen Harn, Kent Shocknek, Chris Coppola, Kimberly Joy McBride, Betsy Hume, Bob Wiltfong, Henry Brooke, Desiree Staples, Emanuel Hernandez, Denny Nolan, Andrew J. Rice, Ivan Ehlers, Kevin Dembinsky, Elle Vernee.  Directed by Maceo Greenberg

 

These days, big corporations and in particular, Big Tech make big targets. So do creepy, misogynist bosses. We all know that everyone hates all of those things. Well, ALMOST everyone.

Miles (Creer) works at Teleplex, a data mining company. It’s a far from ideal working environment, with a boss (Cooper) who is as abusive as they come and with unreasonable expectations. People are worked like the wage slaves they are and Miles can barely afford to live in the apartment he rents, despite having what most woud consider a stable job.

His cubicle is next to Jane (Robinson), one of those incredibly beautiful girls who always seem to be absolutely unobtainable. She has crosses to bear of her own; that same boss, Charles, consistently demeans her and she seems to have to work twice as hard as the men to earn any sort of respect.

But things are a lot worse than Mies thought they were; in fact, Charles has hidden cameras all over the building including under Jane’s desk and in the women’s bathroom, the better to perve on all the gals in the office. When he brings this to Jane’s attention, rather than go to the police or even to HR, she wants to get back at Charles in a more meaningful way. They enlist Miles’ party animal friend Jameson (Bennett) to help dig up the real goods on the company but when they get the dirt on Charles, they discover that the hidden cameras are only the tip of the iceberg.

As far as workplace comedies go, the top of the pyramid is the 1999 Mike Judge movie Office Space with which this film shares some thematic elements in common. I think, however, that Greenberg is loathe to have his own film compared to that classic comedy; for one thing, he shifts tones about two thirds of the way through the film in what can only be described as a jarring and unexpected manner. From that point, the movie falls off the rails in a big way.

That’s a shame, because up to that point it’s pretty enjoyable. I might have wished for edgier comedy, but the leads of Robinson and Creer are pretty nifty. Both are very likable and although Miles is a bit on the wishy washy side, Jane is a strong, powerful woman whom you wouldn’t want to cross. The character of Jameson, though, seemed to be somewhat unnecessary to me; he’s meant to provide comic relief but his Spicoli-like antics really don’t do anything to make the film better.

All in all the movie is mostly likable but that shift from workplace comedy to faux thriller really dooms it. I wouldn’t try to talk you out of giving this a try from your local streaming service for a weekend pizza and movie night on a cod winter evening, but then again I think you could probably do better as well.

REASONS TO SEE: Creer and Robinson have much potential.
REASONS TO AVOID: The humor needs more edge.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, drug references and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the directing debut for Valadez.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Office Space
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Judas and the Black Messiah

Blithe Spirit (2020)


Won’t you look sweet upon a seat…

(2020) Comedy (IFCDan Stevens, Leslie Mann, Judi Dench, Isla Fisher, Aimee Ffion-Edwards, Emilia Fox, Julian Rhind-Tutt, James Fleet, Michele Dotrice, Simon Kunz, Dave Johns, Adil Ray, Calie Cooke, Peter Rogers, Delroy Atkinson, James Fleet, Issy van Randwyck, Tam Williams, Colin Stinton, Stella Stocker, James Sygrove, Georgina Rich.  Directed by Edward Hall

 

Noel Coward was one of the most brilliant wits of the 20th century. He plied his trade at the height of one of the most creative literary periods in history, rubbing elbows figuratively if not literally with such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Aldous Huxley and Thomas Wofe. While most of his works were pithy and lightweight, they helped set the standard for British humor that endures to this day. I find it absolutely incredible that his work isn’t filmed more often.

Charles Condomine (Stevens) is a feckless crime novel writer who has found great success, but hasn’t written a word since his first wife Elvira (Mann) died young. Now commissioned to write a screenplay adapting his first novel by the father – a producer at powerhouse Pinewood Studios in the UK –  of his new wife, Ruth (Fisher). The trouble is, he is apparently beset by a writer’s block that is the size of a small country.

The Condomine couple and some friends take in the performance of Madame Arcati (Dench), a spiritual medium, as a means of distraction, but the performance goes howlingly wrong. Charles is struck by inspiration; he can work a supernatural element into the plot! Elated by the idea, he asks Madame Arcati to do a private séance at his London home, and while she’s reluctant, after the disaster of that performance she knows she needs the work, so she reluctantly agrees.

To her own amazement, she actually makes contact with the other side and manages to raise the spirit of Elvira, but the trouble is that only Charles can see her. Once she gets over the shock of her own demise, she becomes extremely perturbed that Chares has remarried, and sets out to win back Charles for her own – even if it kills him.

The bare bones of Coward’s original work remains, but the writing team of Nick Moorcroft, Meg Leonard and Piers Ashworth have made some pasing strange updates to the work, demoting the showstopper Arcati to a much reduced role and giving her a backstory that is meant to inspire pathos. Dench, ever the trooper, pulls it off with aplomb and manages to remain the highlight of the show, but the movie needed a lot more zing and the writers fail to deliver any.

Coward is known for his often barbed and acerbic dialogue that might seem a bit dated now. The decision to keep this a period piece might have rendered that less of a problem, but instead the writers chose to make the dialogue more updated – this feels more like a sitcom, with far more slapstick than Coward would ever have tolerated, and a few dick jokes which in 1945 would have been unconscionable but Coward himself might have arched an eyebrow, deftly flicked an ash from his ever-present cigarette holder and said “Well, one must admire a man who doesn’t mind displaying his shortcomings for all to see.” One really needs to understand the source material in order to properly adapt it, and I don’t get the sense that the writers – or the director – could really claim that distinction.

Admittedly, the cast is marvelous and most of them do pretty well with what they’re given, particularly Dench (as previously mentioned) and Stevens, the Downton Abbey vet who shows a flair for drawing room comedies here. Unfortunately, those aren’t particularly in vogue and this effort is unlikely to bring them back. The production looks sumptuous, and the costumes are Oscar-worthy. However, the score sounds like something you’d hear in a Looney Toon cartoon and often distracts from what is going on in the fim which might not necessariy be a bad thing.

I do really admire the work of Noel Coward and I heartily recommend that you see David Lean’s 1945 adaptation of Blithe Spirit along with other Coward gems like Private Lives and By Which We Serve. Unfortunately, this won’t go down as a masterful interpretation of his genius, but hope lives on that we shall one day see a new version of one of his plays  that does.

REASONS TO SEE: Dench is magnificent in this droll period piece.
REASONS TO AVOID: Unaccountably diverges from the source material in senseless ways.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some comic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While this is Hall’s first motion picture feature, he has had a long career as a theatrical and television director.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV,  DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube, Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews; Metacritic: 24/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Topper
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Take Me to Tarzana

Earwig and the Witch (Âya to majo)


Which is the witch?

(2020) Animated Feature (GKIDS) Starring the voices of Dan Stevens, Richard E. Grant, Taylor Henderson, Vanessa Marshall, Kacey Musgraves, Logan Hannan, Pandora Colin, JB Blanc, Thomas Bromhead, Alex Cartañá, Summer Jenkins, Eva Kaminski, Sherina Munafu, Vivienne Richardson. Directed by Gorô Miyazaki

 

For anime fans, Studio Ghibli is the apex predator, much in the same way Pixar was to computer animation early on (and, some would argue, still is). But while Pixar has specialized in computer generated animation, Studio Ghibli was strictly hand-drawn. That is, until this made-for-TV entry by founder Hayao Miyazaki’s son, based on a posthumously-published novel by Howl’s Moving Castle author Diane Wynne Jones.

A baby is dropped off at St. Morwad’s orphanage by a red-haired witch (Musgraves) who leaves a note that she is being chased by 12 witches and will be back to pick up her child once she shakes off the pursuit, which, she warns, may take years. That baby grows up to be Earwig (Henderson), a somewhat manipulative and not always lovable tyke who has the orphanage running to her specifications and is in no hurry to leave it. She tells fellow orphan Custard (Hannan) as much, shortly before being adopted by Bella Yaga (Marshall), a corpulent blue-haired witch and her domestic partner, the demonic Mandrake (Grant) who is quick to anger and, she is warned, will do awful things if not left alone.

Bella Yaga isn’t looking for a daughter so much as she’s looking for an assistant – slave labor would be more like it – and Earwig balks at the idea of giving away her work for nothing. HOWEVER…if Bella Yaga is willing to teach her spellcraft, things might just work out after all. In any case, Earwig wants to control her new “parents” the same way she controlled the orphanage – only this will take some real magic. When Bella Yaga proves to be less than forthcoming in terms of lessons, Earwig teaches herself, aided by the feline familiar Thomas (Stevens).

Earwig isn’t one of Wynne Jones’ better novels and whereas pappy Hayao fleshed out Howl’s Moving Castle with his own personality and feeling, scion Goro doesn’t really do the same here. There are a few scenes giving Earwig’s mother some back story, but other than that, things are mainly as written. The computer animation, mostly farmed out to contractors around the world, is mainly uneven despite an opening sequence of Earwig’s mom being chased on a motorcycle through traffic that is absolutely brilliant. After that, this turns out more like direct-to-video CGI complete with plastic skin tones, stiff facial expressions and robot-like movement.

While there are some moments of whimsy and humor that are the trademark of Ghibli productions, the main issue here is Earwig herself. She’s not very likable. She’s controlling, selfish, uber-manipulative and often sneers at the adults she has under her thumb behind their backs. It makes for not a very attractive character and it makes it hard for viewers to like her and root for her.

Still, as a Studio Ghibli production, there is quality here, albeit not as much as you’re used to seeing in the course of most of their other productions. One gets the sense that Goro is trying to impress or perhaps outdo his father by taking on productions that are similar thematically to those his father was famous for, but he doesn’t seem to have a knack for it. Perhaps Goro would be wiser to try making features that please himself first and worry about dear old dad afterwards. It’s perhaps not fair to compare him to his father, who is essentially the Walt Disney of Japanese animation, but Goro invites those comparisons by doing projects like this one. I don’t think that this is necessarily a bad production – it really is meant for a younger audience than most Studio Ghibli films – but compared to their high standards it doesn’t quite reach the bar.

REASONS TO SEE: Plenty of that sly Studio Ghibli humor.
REASONS TO AVOID: Surprisingly uneven and Earwig is far too annoying to be relatable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film from Studio Ghibli to be completely computer animated.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/12/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Witches
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Blithe Spirit (2021)