With the arrival of the holidays, it’s time to get ready for a Christmas stocking chock full of new movies, both in theaters and online. So what are the best selections in Santa’s big bag of cinema? Find out on a special holiday edition of The Good Media Network’s Frankiesense & More video podcast with yours truly and special guest host Danielle Findlay. Tune in Thursday December 23 at 2 pm ET on Facebook Live, available by clicking here, for a lively discussion of new releases worth seeing. And, as always, you can always catch the show on demand!
Sunday, December 19, 2021
Thursday, December 16, 2021
“The Last Right” (2019 production, 2021 release). Cast: Michiel Huisman, Niamh Algar, Samuel Bottomley, Brian Cox, Colm Meaney, Michael McElhatton, Eleanor O’Brien, Jim Norton, Julie Sharkey, Catherine Byrne, Aidan O’Hare, Donough Deeney, Shashi Rami, Siobhan Owens. Director: Aoife Crehan. Screenplay: Aoife Crehan. Web site. Trailer.
When it comes to doing right by someone in need, it generally should be fairly easy to determine what to do. Showing compassion and lending a helping hand are practices that come naturally to many of us. But how far should we go with this? What if we’re presented with a sizable request for assistance, one that could easily place quite a burden on us in our attempt at being a Good Samaritan? What’s more, what do we do when we’re faced with having to juggle several such scenarios simultaneously? Such are the circumstances unexpectedly thrust upon a would-be caring benefactor who suddenly finds himself overwhelmed by the pleas placed upon him, as seen in the endearing Irish comedy-drama, “The Last Right.”
Irish-born lawyer Daniel Murphy (Michiel Huisman) has been steadily building a successful career in the US for years. In fact, he’s become so settled across the pond that America seems more like home than Ireland does these days. His ties to the Emerald Isle have diminished significantly, almost as if his homeland has become an afterthought in his outlook. But that changes suddenly when he receives an unexpected phone call learning that his mother, Sarah (Siobhan Owens), has passed away.
With that news, Daniel must return home to make funeral arrangements. But there’s more to it than planning a wake; he must also make some important decisions regarding the future of his junior sibling, Louis (Samuel Bottomley), an autistic young man who has been under Sarah’s care. However, while Daniel sincerely wants to address the needs of his brother’s well-being, this isn’t a good time for him to take on a lot of additional responsibility. He’s working on an important client matter, one that could have significant implications for career advancement. He’s also attempting to salvage a relationship that doesn’t appear to be on the firmest of footings. And, to top things off, the year-end holidays are right around the corner, not exactly the best time to be tackling major life-changing projects. But, being the dutiful son and brother that he is, he boards a plane for Ireland.
While on his flight, the passenger sitting next to Daniel strikes up an unsolicited conversation with him. Given the circumstances, Daniel would probably prefer to simply listen to music on his ear buds, but, to avoid appearing rude, he joins in the chat, albeit somewhat reluctantly. Daniel’s impromptu traveling companion is an elderly gentleman named Padraig (Jim Norton). After an initial exchange of pleasantries, Padraig asks Daniel about the purpose of his trip. When Daniel explains that he’s traveling to arrange his mother’s funeral, Padraig replies that he’s doing roughly the same thing, returning home to handle the wake for his brother, an estranged sibling and his only next of kin, someone he hadn’t seen in years. Padraig is also amused to learn that he and Daniel share the same last name. Indeed, what are the chances of a pair of Murphys showing up on the same flight making a trip to the same destination with a comparable mission in mind?
As the flight progresses, though, circumstances change drastically. Daniel and Padraig take naps, but, unfortunately, Padraig doesn’t wake up from his slumbers, passing away in his sleep. And, as the flight crew investigates the situation, they find Padraig’s passport and discover that sometime before his nap he designated a new next of kin in the document – one Daniel Murphy.
Daniel is naturally flabbergasted. Upon landing, he attempts to explain to authorities that he had just met Padraig and that they weren’t related. However, in light of their shared last name and Padraig’s designation of Daniel as his next of kin, officials aren’t readily convinced. Daniel, however, insists that authorities will have to handle arrangements for Padraig, given that he must attend to his own more pressing affairs.
Upon arrival at his mother’s home, Daniel is met by more surprises. For example, he starts off by meeting Frank Delaney (Michael McElhatton), who, as it turns out, has been helping Sarah look after Louis’s well-being (not to mention serving as her steady romantic interest). Then there’s Daniel’s reunion with his brother, a meeting that doesn’t go particularly well, especially when he outlines the new living arrangements he’s made for Louis, a plan that would take him away from his beloved Ireland and relocate him to a special facility in the US, an upsetting decision he vociferously protests. But, to complicate matters even further, Daniel receives an unanticipated visit from Officer Sheila O’Neil (Eleanor O’Brien), an earnest but somewhat neurotic new recruit to the local police force, who brings with her a surprise – news that the corpse of Padraig Murphy is ready for whatever final dispensation the deceased’s next of kin – Daniel – is prepared to provide.
Needless to say, Daniel is unsure what to do, but Louis says that, even though Padraig is essentially a stranger, he deserves the same dignified treatment that was accorded to Sarah. To accomplish that, it would mean transporting the body from Daniel’s family homestead in County Cork in the south of Ireland to Padraig’s birthplace, Rathlin Island, in the north. Not only would that mean traversing the length of the Emerald Isle, but it would also involve crossing the border from the Irish Republic into Northern Ireland, a territory of the United Kingdom.
So how is this all to be pulled off? That’s hard to say, especially when questions regarding official possession of the body begin to arise as baffled, bumbling authorities seek to sort out the jumbled circumstances regarding its handling. Suddenly, matters of doing what’s right versus doing what’s legal start to emerge, with Daniel caught squarely in the middle, pressured both by his unyielding brother and the dictates of law enforcement. Can a realistic amenable solution be worked out?
Daniel gets some help (though of a somewhat dubious nature) from the funeral home that handled arrangements for his mother. One of the facility’s staff members, Mary Sullivan (Niamh Algar), steps up to assist, just as she did when she offered valuable emotional support to Louis when attending to Sarah’s arrangements. Mary agrees to help Daniel and Louis transport Padraig’s body up north in exchange for a favor: transportation to a location en route to their destination, one where she needs to handle some kind of undisclosed personal business. Daniel’s not thrilled with the terms of the arrangement, but, if it helps him realize his goal, he’ll go along with it in the interest of what he hopes will be ease and expediency.
And so, with that plan in place, Daniel, Louis and Mary head out on a cross-island road trip. It’s a journey that starts off with the best of intentions. Of course, we all know what those intentions are ultimately used to pave, and the unlikely trio quickly finds that out as their misadventure unfolds. A series of incidents involving Louis’s unpredictable behavior, the revelation of Mary’s secrets, spiraling misinterpretations of innocent events and unexpected deep-seeded confessions all combine for an outing that’s anything but smooth sailing. Add to this mayhem allegations of criminal activity, the dogged pursuit of an overzealous detective (Colm Meaney), the gentle but persistent impatience of an officiating minister in waiting (Brian Cox) and the emergence of an international jurisdictional incident drive up the stakes for everyone, especially Daniel, who still wants to do right for all involved.
It’s truly regrettable when others suffer misfortunes, especially those we care about. And many of us genuinely want to step in to help. But how much of ourselves should we be willing to give? That’s particularly true when requests for assistance are so great that they can start to stretch our own resources thin. Is it realistic to think that we should blindly abide by the plea of “Give until it hurts”? Or should we simply turn our backs if the appeals are too onerous? Or is some kind of middle ground compromise in order?
These are not easy questions by any means. Most of us certainly don’t want to appear unkind or uncaring, but what if fulfilling a request at any cost would result in healthy boundaries being violated? Then what?
This is when we need to turn to our beliefs, for they will guide us about what we should do. They’ll also help to shape the results we attain as the end products of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon these resources in manifesting the reality we experience.
However, discerning the precise nature of those beliefs may not always be easy, particularly if there are seemingly conflicting notions involved. Wanting to do good and being able to do good can easily be at odds with one another, making it difficult to arrive at a decision on how to proceed, let alone a workable solution.
It’s at times like this when we must make a deep dive into our hearts to examine the nature of our beliefs and authentic selves. Getting real with ourselves can help us decide what to do when having to address thorny questions like those presented here. Daniel, for example, knows he must do right by Louis and his deceased mother, and he doesn’t hesitate to follow through. But does he owe the same obligation to a stranger he just met on a plane, especially one who tricked him without his awareness or consent? Furthermore, as their road trip progresses and Daniel sees how much of a handful his brother can be, need he selflessly bend to all of Louis’s unusual and troublesome requests, even though he knows his challenged sibling can’t help himself? What’s more, is the act of being a helping hand worth placing oneself in potentially serious jeopardy with the law and international authorities, all for the sake of being a good sport?
Some would say that, in making appraisals of situations like these, we should examine what they mean for us, as well as those being helped. For example, is willingly taking on a huge responsibility in exchange for the good karma points we’ll supposedly earn for it a sufficient enough (or noble enough) reason for doing so, especially if it could wipe the slate clean of past failings? Will the payoff of such an undertaking end up benefitting both parties? Or will there be some kind of “backlash” associated with an endeavor that could possibly be seen as essentially self-serving?
From the foregoing, it would seem as though there are no easy answers, and that’s likely an accurate assessment. For what it’s worth, the outcome in each case is likely to be closely tied to our individual beliefs. If we take on a task because we believe it’s the right thing to do, all other considerations aside, we’ll probably achieve a satisfying result for everyone involved. At the same time, if we proceed with a venture in which all manner of ancillary concerns are attached, those qualifying conditions are sure to have an impact in the end, given that all of the factors contributing to such scenarios have their origins in beliefs that contribute to the ultimate manifestation. In those cases, the results may satisfying, or not, or somewhere in between. This is why understanding the precise nature of our beliefs going in to such circumstances is so vitally important, both for those we’re trying to help and for ourselves as well.
These, of course, are the considerations Daniel must address, and only he can determine what is right in the end. And this, interestingly enough, ties in to the film’s title, a fitting play on words related to what we typically think of as “the last rite.” Will Daniel do “right” when it comes to Padraig’s “last rite”? And how will it result for him if he succeeds at this? Of course, Daniel is presented with other opportunities to do right in this film, too, and viewers can’t help but wonder if he’ll pass the tests in those instances as well. Taken together, then, these challenges serve up a significant life lesson for the career-driven lawyer, providing him with the means to take a fresh new look at his life and to help him determine where his future is headed. Will he continue along the path he’s been on, or will it change the course of his destiny? One never knows where one may end up if it weren’t for scenarios that provide us with a chance to take a look at who we are, what we want and where we’re going. Indeed, seeming tragedies can transform us in ways we weren’t expecting but from which we – and others – can benefit tremendously.
The road trip format of this film is particularly helpful in examining circumstances like these. Journeys nearly always equate to exercises in evolution, showing how individuals and their qualities change over time and in relation to the conditions they face. They can also prove valuable in helping us to discover ourselves, to uncover and liberate aspects of our being that we didn’t know were present within us, bringing them to the surface and enabling their outward expression. In the process, the appearance of these traits and the underlying beliefs that brought them into being can shed light on how we handle the conditions around us, allowing us to blossom in ways we may have never imagined. The value in this is incalculable, especially when it comes to being of value to others. Daniel may not have grasped this idea when he boarded his plane to Ireland, but he certainly seems to have developed a new appreciation for it during the course of his Emerald Isle odyssey, unexpected though it may have been.
Twists of fate can take us down some intriguing roads, some of which can be challenging to maneuver, but others of which can lead us to some delightful, fulfilling and uplifting surprises. Writer-director Aiofe Crehan’s debut feature does just that. This sweet and touching affair combines moments of madcap humor and affecting drama (though, given the irreverent subject matter, it really could have used a little more of the former and a little less of the latter, its heartstring-tugging message notwithstanding), making for an endearing, beautifully filmed watch with homages to such offerings as director Barry Levinson’s “Rain Man” (1988) and filmmaker Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” (2013). Admittedly, there are some sequences that sag like hammocks and that would have benefitted from swifter pacing, more in the tradition of classic screwball comedies. That aside, however, those looking for a pleasant, warm, fuzzy movie experience may want to give this one a look. The film’s original release was delayed by the COVID pandemic, but it is now available for streaming online and on the Showtime cable TV network.
Being asked to give of ourselves – even to an extreme degree – can be a life-changing experience, despite the frustrations we may undergo in the process. Such scenarios help us to realize that there’s more to our existence than just ourselves, expanding our horizons about what matters in life. We’re likely to come out of these experiences as better, more humane individuals, beings who appreciate the value of living and the dignity in dying – and how to properly respond to both.
Copyright © 2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.
Tuesday, December 14, 2021
“Belfast” (2021). Cast: Jude Hill, Caitríona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds, Lewis McAskie, Lara McDonnell, Josie Walker, Colin Morgan, Conor MacNeill, Olive Tennant, Vanessa Ifediora, Turlough Convery. Director: Kenneth Branagh. Screenplay: Kenneth Branagh. Web site. Trailer.
Navigating the ways of the world during our youth can be quite a challenge. When surrounded by the unfamiliar and new, virtually everything can present an opportunity for learning, a process that is sometimes confusing and bewildering. But it can also be a time of wondrous eye-opening revelation, and it can be made easier when we’re in the company of loving and supportive family and friends, as seen in the heartwarming new semi-autobiographical memoir, “Belfast.”
Such are the circumstances of nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), the younger of two sons born to working class parents (Caitríona Balfe, Jamie Dornan) in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Buddy lives in a tight-knit neighborhood that’s home to his extended family and assorted friends. Everyone gets along just fine, despite whatever differences might distinguish them, making for a harmonious and happy environment, an ideal setting for nurturing little ones as they grow up. But suddenly and quite unexpectedly, that sense of peace is shattered, irrevocably changing the nature of the neighborhood and young Buddy’s outlook on life.
In August 1969, all hell suddenly breaks loose when political extremists operating under the guise of religious righteousness begin combatting one another in the streets of Buddy’s neighborhood. One moment he’s outside happily playing with friends, and the next he’s running for cover to protect himself from flying shrapnel and wide-eyed fundamentalist terrorists. And, before long, residents who once lived together in harmony are at each other’s throats, all in the name of Protestant and Catholic dogma. (So much for Christianity’s supposed peace of understanding.)
Needless to say, Buddy is more than a bit mystified. He barely comprehends much about the meaning of religion to begin with, but to now see it used as a rhetorical weapon wielded by people he has long known to attack one another completely puzzles him. In a heartbeat, his ability to freely walk the streets and live an ordinary life has evaporated, and he has no clear understanding of why.
Buddy looks for insights and clarification from those around him. There’s his brimstone-spouting minister (Turlough Convery), who does little more than fan the flames of fear, a practice that religion typically does so well. Then there’s his older brother, Will (Lewis Askie), who’s generally more interested in the secular than the spiritual. Ma does her best to offer comfort and meaning, although that’s frequently difficult given the many challenges she faces in trying to hold the family together, namely, the insane mayhem that has erupted around her, the dangerous influence of a teenage troublemaker (Lara McDonnell) and Pa’s recurring absence to work a job in England to earn enough money to support the household. In light of those shortcomings, perhaps the most meaningful advice comes from Buddy’s loving grandparents, Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds), who adore the youngster and try to provide a buffer between the lad and the changed world in which he now lives.
In the meantime, despite this troubling backdrop, Buddy attempts to continue enjoying whatever modest pleasures are still available to him, such as occasional visits to the cinema to watch movies that provide temporary diversions from day-to-day troubles, such as the delightfully whimsical “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” (1968), as well as broadcasts of his favorite American TV shows, like Star Trek. He also carries on with the life lessons that often arise in childhood, such as navigating the ways of his first romantic crush, in this case with the lovely young Catherine (Olive Tennant).
Still, despite these pleasant distractions, Buddy and his family can’t escape the circumstances unfolding around them, especially when they flare up and reach such degrees of intensity that UK troops now walk the streets in an effort to keep the peace (or at least prevent it from getting any worse). What’s more, these conditions make it increasingly difficult to instill cherished values, such as tolerance, kindness and nonviolence, all of which Buddy must address in the midst of an uncertain daily existence. And, as this situation continues to intensify, the family soon faces some hard choices about their future, difficulties that are hard enough on the adults in the household, let alone on a sensitive, inquisitive nine-year-old.
How matters play out will undoubtedly leave a significant and lasting impression on everyone but especially on one whose impressions are still at a precarious formative stage. What will this mean for Buddy and his family? That’s what hangs in the balance on the increasingly dangerous streets of this once-peaceful Northern Ireland community, a legacy that will take decades to fully sort out.
Picture yourself as a nine-year-old like Buddy, a happy, carefree youth who clearly enjoys his life and surroundings. But then try to imagine yourself as that same youngster who’s suddenly thrust into a world of chaos and seemingly irrational animosity. What is one to make of that? Can any sense realistically be made of such illogical events and recklessly dangerous conditions? Why did circumstances change as they did, and was there even a need for it?
Those are legitimate questions, to be sure, and, for someone with limited life experience, answers are hard to come by. That’s important in determining what one thinks about the world, specifically what he or she believes about the nature of existence. And such beliefs are significant in that they help to frame one’s outlook about the nature of reality, a perspective that can easily become self-perpetuating through the power and persistence of those beliefs. Such notions provide the foundation of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the existence we experience through those underlying building blocks.
Under conditions like these, one can only wonder what Buddy thinks. It indeed comes as no surprise that he’s confused. Growing up can be perplexing enough even under the best of conditions, but, when the process is complicated by circumstances as extraordinarily unusual and atypical as these, it’s hard to fathom how someone so impressionable can realistically keep his wits about him or avoid falling under corrupting undue influences.
For Buddy, this is particularly critical when it comes to shaping his values, especially those that will affect his interaction with others and the life he creates for himself, in all likelihood for the rest of his days. However, given the conditions he’s being exposed to on a daily basis, how realistic is it to expect that he’ll be able to appreciate the virtues of kindness and civility when those around him are throwing rocks and beating one another with tire irons? What beliefs will arise from continuous exposure to such behavior? And can their negative influences be sufficiently counteracted to produce a contrary response?
It seems logical to assume that Buddy would be especially baffled by the mixed messages simultaneously being served up by devout religious figures and those who are engaged in unspeakable acts of violence in the name of religion. When impassioned assertions like “love thy neighbor” run headlong into acts of neighbors zealously beating one another bloody, it may be more than a little difficult to figure out which action to embrace, and the subsequent impact on the formation of one’s beliefs can thus become even more precarious. What kind of a life and future awaits someone like Buddy under those kinds of conditions?
Perhaps most fundamentally, kids like Buddy are left to wrestle with the most puzzling question of all – why is all this happening in the first place? Why did Protestant and Catholic neighbors who lived together in harmony for years suddenly become totally irrational and begin attacking one another for no apparent reason other than differences in their religious practices? Is it possible there’s more to this than just reading from different liturgies?
Getting to the underlying intents is crucial in understanding such matters, something that may be difficult for inexperienced youngsters to grasp and appreciate. But it’s at times like that when actions begin to speak louder than words, and, if Buddy and his peers truly want to understand what’s at work, they should pay close attention to what’s unfolding. That becomes apparent, for example, in the actions of his militant Protestant neighbor Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan), a young thug who, with his sidekick muscle, McLaury (Conor MacNeill), seeks to bully the neighborhood into submission. Clanton wants to rid the neighborhood of the long-established “Catholic vermin” who live on the block, recruiting whatever backing he can get, including Buddy’s dad, by any means possible. The experience sets quite an example and provides a powerful teaching moment, one that, one would hope, provides lads like Buddy with a chance to learn how to differentiate right from wrong – and set him on the proper course for the future.
Fortunately, young minds often work like sponges, soaking up much of what’s transpiring around them, providing them with considerable input for making up their minds and formulating suitable beliefs. One can only hope that Buddy gleans the essence of such situations and translates it into meaningful insights of his own, beliefs that he can draw upon in shaping a positive existence for himself and eschewing the negative examples being set by those who let their passions and prejudices get the better of them and try to bend the world to their knees, needlessly wreaking havoc in the process.
While writer-director Kenneth Branagh’s latest offering might not always feel as fully fleshed out as it could have been, for what’s here, this semi-autobiographical memoir about the filmmaker’s challenged upbringing in this troubled Northern Ireland city hits all of the right notes and does so in a thoughtful, entertaining, well-balanced manner. Told from the perspective of its youthful protagonist, “Belfast” plumbs material that many viewers can easily relate to – family dynamics, first loves, the joy of community and the endearment of adoring grandparents. In doing so, the film comes across like a fusion of director John Boorman’s “Hope and Glory” (1987) and the nostalgic TV series The Wonder Years as it tells the story of a sprightly young lad attempting to grow up as normally as possible in the face of a senseless religious-based civil war.
Some detractors have contended that this release “isn’t political enough,” but politics aren’t the focus of this film. Others have criticized it as a vapid feel-good movie, but that designation is far too glib considering the backdrop under which the story takes place, one that gives the picture an edge and serves as a constant reminder of what can lurk in the underbelly of our reality, no matter how otherwise pleasant our existence may seem. Admittedly, there are times when viewers are left somewhat wanting for a little more dramatic depth, but the finely penned screenplay nevertheless delivers more than its share of emotionally touching moments and gentle humor, as well as evenly paced, well-developed treatment of its various story threads, all of which are suitably wrapped up by film’s end. All of this is beautifully brought to life by the picture’s superb black-and-white cinematography, its lively and fitting Van Morrison soundtrack, its skillful, sensitive direction, and the excellent performances of its fine ensemble cast, particularly newcomer Jude Hill, Irish actress Caitríona Balfe, and veterans Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds.
“Belfast,” which is currently playing theatrically, has already come up a big winner in terms of awards season nominations, with more almost assuredly to follow. In the Critics Choice Award competition, the film picked up a whopping 11 nominations, including best picture, best supporting actress (Balfe), best supporting actor (for both Hinds and Dornan), best acting ensemble and best young actor/actress (Hill), along with nods for achievements in directing, original screenplay, cinematography, editing and production design. Similarly, the picture earned seven Golden Globe Award nominations for best dramatic picture, director, screenplay, original song, supporting actress (Balfe) and supporting actor (for both Hinds and Dornan). In addition, the National Board of Review bestowed two honors on this release as one of 2021’s Top Films and for Hinds’s supporting actor performance. And, to round things out, “Belfast” received a special award from the American Film Institute. Viewers can certainly expect more accolades to follow.
Growing up should be a period full of joy and wonder, one in which we learn about life, the ways of the world, what matters most and important values to live by. It’s a time when we should be able to focus our energies and attention on what truly matters most, free from distractions and hindrances that can keep us from accomplishing this goal, one that will provide us with a crucial template for what we create and experience for the duration of our days in this thing we call physical existence. This is not to suggest that we should be confined to some sort of isolated, sanitized bubble free from the realities of life; indeed, there are significant life lessons to be learned from the challenges and difficulties of existence that will help to prepare us for what may lie ahead, a point made apparent in many of the sometimes-gruesome fairytales we’re told in our youth.
But, that aside, childhood should nevertheless be a time when we’re able to assess and examine the considerations that help us to make this a better place for us all, especially when it comes to forming the beliefs we hold to make that possible. If we miss out on that due to having to address concerns outside those primary objectives, we come up the losers in the end. And what a tragedy that would be, not just for us as individuals, but also for what might be for all of us, an outcome that may be difficult if not impossible to overcome and that could carry through and become part of a wider world at large. There’s simply too much at stake to let that happen, and “Belfast,” with its timeless story, makes that more than abundantly clear.
Copyright © 2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.
Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, Tuesday, December 14, at 2 pm ET, by clicking here. And, if you don't hear the show live, catch it later on demand on Spreaker, Spotify, Apple, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, Castbox, Deezer, Podchaser and Jiosaavn.
Monday, December 13, 2021
Want to help promote book reading in your neighborhood? Here's a thought -- check out if there's a Little Free Library in your neighborhood! The program offers participants an opportunity to borrow or contribute books for free from little fencepost-mounted stands that hold a small but diverse inventory of titles on a wide array of subjects. I did my part by contributing a copy of the first edition of my debut book, Get the Picture?!: Conscious Creation Goes to the Movies, in my Lincoln Park neighborhood Little Free Library. Join the world's largest free book sharing movement! Thanks to my partner Trevor Laster for snapping the photos!
Wednesday, December 8, 2021
“House of Gucci” (2021). Cast: Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Jared Leto, Jack Huston, Salma Hayek, Camille Cottin, Alexia Murray, Vincent Riotta, Youssef Kerkour. Director: Ridley Scott. Screenplay: Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna. Story: Becky Johnston. Book: Sara Gay Forden, The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour and Greed. Web site. Trailer.
Ambition is a dual-edged sword. On one hand, it can drive the fulfillment of tremendous noteworthy and beneficial accomplishments. On the other hand, however, it can get out of control when left unchecked, taking us places that are better left unexplored. Given that, then, we must ask ourselves, “What will it be – a path to achievement or a road to ruin?” That’s the central question raised in the pulpy, fact-based domestic drama, “House of Gucci.”
In 1978, Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) is about to become embroiled in a perilous scenario he never saw coming. The conservative, mild-mannered law student and one of the heirs to the family fortune of the House of Gucci, world-renowned Italian designers of high-end leather goods, clothing and accessories, goes about his life unassumingly, diligently pursuing his studies and dutifully attending to the needs of his widowed father, Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons), a onetime screen star and a largely silent partner in the family business. Everything seems to be going along fine until one fateful evening when Maurizio attends a party.
While at this glitzy, glamorous soiree, the reserved Maurizio mostly keeps to himself, but that all changes when he has a chance encounter with one of the guests, Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga). She’s instantly smitten with Maurizio, especially when she learns he’s a Gucci. Even though the down-to-earth Maurizio is not especially self-absorbed with his pedigree and social status, Patrizia, an ambitious middle class social climber, is anxious to snag herself a designer beau while the opportunity presents itself. She subsequently pursues Maurizio with persistence, and he gradually yields to her charms, albeit much to his father’s dismay. Rodolfo has no problem with his son dating Patrizia, but he’s adamantly opposed to them marrying, looking upon her as an opportunistic gold digger, an assessment with which Maurizio, in a rare display of rebellious assertiveness, heartily disagrees. Rodolfo informs Maurizio that, if he marries Patrizia, he’ll cut off all ties with him, including those of a financial nature. Yet it’s a risk Maurizio is genuinely willing to take – and a setback that Patrizia realizes she’ll quietly have to work to overcome.
With no means of Gucci family support, Maurizio takes a job washing trucks in the transport company owned by Patrizia’s father, Fernando (Vincent Riotta). He seems relatively content to be working and able to modestly support his wife, but it’s not enough for Patrizia. She begins looking for ways for Maurizio to re-ingratiate himself within the Gucci empire, his father’s formal severance with him notwithstanding. And that opportunity comes when a Gucci family relative plans a trip to Italy.
Aldo Gucci (Al Pacino), Rodolfo’s gregarious brother and the active partner in the family business, has been living in New York for some time, managing the company’s affairs and overseeing its global expansion. But now, as he prepares to celebrate his birthday, he decides to return to his homeland to be with family for the event. He invites his nephew and his new bride to the party, despite Maurizio’s initial reluctance to attend. Aldo persists, however, saying he’s anxious to see them and to meet Patrizia for the first time, given that he was unable to attend their wedding. Aldo’s perseverance pays off, and he succeeds in convincing the newlyweds to join the festivities.
Aldo is instantly taken with Patrizia, and she piles on the charm to court the favor of Maurizio’s uncle, especially where the family business is concerned. Aldo discreetly tells Maurizio that he sees him as the future of the company, especially since the only other family member candidate is his son, Paolo (Jared Leto), a buffoonish would-be designer with unrealistic expectations and an inherent lack of talent, a point on which virtually all Gucci family members agree. But nailing down the particulars of that transition will take some doing. With both Rodolfo and Aldo aging and in declining health, and with a host of undisclosed financial issues threatening to surface, the likelihood of an orderly transfer of power (and money) is anything but certain. In fact, about the only certainty in all this is that Patrizia wants to steer events in a direction that clearly serves her and Maurizio – with an emphasis decidedly on her.
What ensues is a nasty power struggle to secure control of the Gucci fortunes, with Patrizia taking the lead in orchestrating the course of events, often manipulating Maurizio into decisions in which he has no say and that he’s subsequently left to clean up, actions that lead to his growing resentment toward her. Family infighting, the betrayal of trusted advisors and a search for outside investors to act as financial saviors all come into play, complicating matters at every turn. And, as the stakes are continually raised and circumstances grow progressively more dire, Patrizia becomes ever more desperate to look for the means to get her way, even going so far as to routinely consult a questionable TV psychic, Pina Auriemma (Salma Hayek), for advice that, conveniently and coincidentally, nearly always reflects exactly what she wants to hear (and that sometimes veers way outside of an advisory capacity). What’s more, as Patrizia’s efforts at manipulation and coercion continue to heat up, Maurizio distances himself even further from her, a development that accelerates when he runs into an old flame, Paola Franchi (Camille Cottin), while on a visit to Switzerland. The alienation of affections involved in this only serves to pour fuel onto an already-smoldering fire, one whose consequences carry calamitous implications for all involved.
Getting ahead in life is certainly a laudable pursuit, but how far are we willing to go to attain that goal? Ultimately, it varies for each of us, depending on what beliefs we hold, particularly when it comes to how we view matters of ambition. Some see it as a positive impelling force. But others use it to justify self-serving behavior, a course of action that can leave a trail of carnage in its wake if not properly reined in. In the end, we have to ask ourselves, “Which will it be?”
Determinations like this are important in the formation and adoption of our beliefs, for they play a crucial role in shaping the reality we experience, a product of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon these intangible resources in manifesting the existence we experience. This, of course, takes into account the totality of our world, including not only our own considerations, but also those of others around us. And, if our ambition-based beliefs get out of control, somebody could get hurt – and not just us.
This is at the heart of the story in “House of Gucci,” and we see characters who reflect an array of possible attitudes toward ambition. Maurizio, for example, is contented to get ahead but not at the price of having to step over bodies to do so, at least when it comes to his own volition. However, when he’s backed into a corner and questions of self-preservation come into play, the changed circumstances bring about changes in beliefs – and outcomes – driven by how prior events unfolded. Of course, he might not have had to make those adjustments if he had taken steps to avoid them (more on that below), but, as we’re all aware, desperate times often produce comparable responses.
By contrast, Patrizia is a textbook example of ambition run amok. She wants what she wants, and she’ll do virtually anything to attain it. And that, in turn, calls for ruthless, hardnosed beliefs to make that happen. From the time she first meets Maurizio, she’s willing to do whatever it takes to get her hooks into the Gucci empire and everything that comes with it. She’s so driven, in fact, that one could argue Machiavelli might have had her in mind when he penned The Prince, even though her motivations were focused more on economics than politics. Nevertheless, in pursuing her objectives, she invokes the same absolutist attitude that tyrants have employed throughout history.
In taking this stance, Patrizia practices un-conscious creation, a variation on the philosophy’s basic premise that pursues the realization of one’s goals at all costs, regardless of whatever fallout might arise. The problem with this is that it often produces unintended side effects, as one’s manifestations often materialize in distorted forms, sometimes grotesquely so. This leaves new problems to clean up, often necessitating new desperate measures that take the creator further away from realizing the intended outcome. And, as the film illustrates, what a mess than can yield.
In watching this train wreck unfold, viewers might wonder, “Could any of this have been avoided?” Well, the obvious answer is yes. Patrizia, for instance, could have altered her belief outlook to one that was ambitious but considerably more benign. Just as importantly, though, those around her could have taken steps to ameliorate the situation. Maurizio and other Gucci family members, for example, could have proactively moved to avoid giving away their personal power. But, since they didn’t, they allowed the in-law to intervene and take charge, manipulating situations to her advantage and leaving themselves open to the problems that resulted. And, by that point, circumstances backed them into corners where they often needed to respond in kind, practicing their own forms of un-conscious creation just to try to keep up with what was transpiring around them.
No matter how we go about creating our existence, we must always bear in mind that our beliefs and subsequent materializations are our responsibility as their creators. In particular, we must never lose sight of the fact that what we create always carries consequences, for better or worse. When things work out well, those consequences are obviously positive and often beneficial. However, when things go awry, the consequences can be dire, even deadly. And that, in turn, can open an entirely new can of worms, one that may be next to impossible to properly reseal. Taken in its totality, then, “House of Gucci” is a powerful cautionary tale that plays out on a classic morality play stage, one whose message comes across loud and clear and applies to all manner of situations, not just the attempted takeover of a world-renowned leather goods empire.
Viewers should be aware, though, that this film is not all deadly seriousness. When it comes to director Ridley Scott’s latest, those going in expecting high drama are going to be sorely, sorely disappointed. However, those craving a hefty serving of high camp will be positively delighted. This tawdry, wickedly funny account of the pulpy soap opera behind control of the famous (or is it infamous?) family-owned Italian fashion empire puts even the best episodes of Dynasty to shame. It’s virtually impossible to take any of this overly seriously, which is what I believe the filmmaker was going for here, despite those who mistakenly might believe to the contrary. With superb, over-the-top performances by Lady Gaga, Pacino, Leto and Irons, coupled with extravagant production design excesses at every turn and a suitably fitting period piece soundtrack, this deliciously guilty pleasure of a film entertains throughout, even at a somewhat overlong (but nevertheless well-paced) two-and-a-half hour runtime. I was pleasantly surprised by this one, especially given the erroneous, off-the-mark advance reviews of it. In fact, I came away from the film rhetorically asking myself, “Who knew Ridley Scott had such a sense of humor!” Indeed, if you aren’t tickled by this one, then it’s obvious you’re just no fun. The picture is currently playing in theaters.
We’re all well aware (or at least should be) that we reap what we sow, and that applies across the board from acts of charity to unspeakable atrocities. As a consequence, we should be eminently careful in what we choose to undertake, no matter how strong the temptation might be to willfully line our own pockets. That’s especially true from the standpoint of doing so at any cost. Indeed, all that glitters may not be worth the price, particularly when the cost is higher than any of Gucci’s famous creations. Letting ambition get the best of us could well be a trap from which there’s no escape – and no return.
Copyright © 2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.
Sunday, December 5, 2021
Saturday, December 4, 2021
“Julia” (2021). Cast: Interviews: Alex Prud’homme, Jacques Pépin, Charles Gibson, Marcus Samuelsson, José Andrés, André Cointreau, Barbara Fairchild, Ina Garten, Ruth Reichl, Sara Moulton, Dorothy Zinberg, Alex Pirie, Paul Bogaards, Susy Davidson, Jane Friedman. Archive Footage: Julia Child, Paul Child, Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle, Judith Jones, John McWilliams, Jr., James Beard. Directors: Julie Cohen and Betsy West. Books: Bob Spitz, Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child, Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme, My Life in France, and Alex Prud’homme, The French Chef in America: Julia Child’s Second Act. Web site. Trailer.
It’s been said that life is too short to spend it doing things we dislike, something that many of us can probably attest to. The thought of living out our days engaged in what gives us pleasure is one that far too many people speculate about but never see through. But it is possible if we put our hearts and minds to it, as evidenced by the life experiences of someone who followed her own path and believed in fulfilling her dreams, a story told in the delightful new documentary, “Julia.”
Who would have thought that a middle-aged woman with a lilting voice, an eccentric demeanor and looks that didn’t exactly match those of an idealized 1960s housewife would become a pop culture icon? But that’s precisely what happened with chef Julia Child (1912-2004), who brought the joy of cooking and eating into the mainstream at a time when most Americans gave it precious little thought. Through the publication of her seminal cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking with collaborators Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle and her myriad television appearances, she brought a new appreciation for the art of the kitchen into the lives of many, serving as meticulous instructor, courageous mentor and eclectic culinary tour guide. In the process, she also single-handedly gave birth to the television cooking show and lent ample credibility to the value of the struggling public television network. And her infamous love of butter at a time when most health care professionals were calling it the Great Satan helped contribute to re-evaluations of this once-taboo food (and sent margarine stocks tumbling). These are noteworthy accomplishments for someone who didn’t discover her true calling in life until well into middle age.
This superb, finely detailed documentary about the French Chef treats viewers to the antics of a truly American original, one whose animated and quirky presentation style was as delicious as what she was preparing in her kitchen. But this signature manner didn’t come early in life for Julia. After graduating college, she explored various options for fulfilling her sense of adventure, a quality that set her apart from many other women brought up in traditional, conservative backgrounds. Following the tried and true was not for her. She wanted something different and that was truly her own.
Julia’s first grand adventure came when she joined the OSS, a forerunner to the CIA. She worked as a secretary in Asia during World War II, an experience that led to her meeting the love of her life, Paul Child. Julia fell madly in love with him and followed him everywhere in his various posts, first in Asia as a military man and later in Europe as a State Department official. She thoroughly enjoyed the diversity of her life and travels, as well as the artistic and intellectual stimulation that came from her involvement with Paul. But it wasn’t until he was posted to Paris when her life finally came into focus.
With Julia’s first taste of French food, she instantly fell in love, a romance to rival that of her relationship with her husband. She became so enthralled with French cuisine that she enrolled in the famed Cordon Bleu cooking school, where, as a woman, she stood out in a room full of male students. However, Julia was determined to succeed, and so she hung in there, despite the obvious prejudices directed her way.
Not long thereafter, Julia met her colleagues Simone and Louisette. Together they launched an impromptu cooking school of their own, Ecole Des Trois Gourmandes, primarily for Parisian housewives who wanted to become more skilled in the kitchen. But this was just a prelude to a bigger project. Simone and Louisette were compiling a French cookbook for an American audience, but, to make it work, they needed the assistance of someone who could translate the text and recipes properly and put the information in a context that homemakers across the pond could understand. The result was a culinary magnum opus that the trio’s original publisher rejected but that was subsequently picked up by another house, where editor Judith Jones helped turn the unconventional manuscript into a blockbuster title whose sales and popularity have persisted to this day.
With the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia made an appearance on a book review show on the public broadcasting affiliate in Boston. It was a program that mostly featured stuffy intellectual conversations and that few people watched. However, when Julia appeared on the show, she included a cooking demonstration with her interview, a move that proved to be pure gold, both for her and the show. The episode was a hit, helping to pave the fortunes of the eccentric chef and the underappreciated TV network. Before long, Julia had her own show, The French Chef, the first of many. She was quickly off and running.
In the ensuing years, Julia became a staple on public broadcasting, eventually reaching a national audience. She would go on to write additional books and eventually join the team of Good Morning America, enabling her to tap into an even larger viewership. In doing so, she celebrated the art of cooking, winning over countless converts to a subject that was once largely ignored by American audiences. And she did it all with flair, panache and her own brand of whimsical humor.
Julia also made a name for herself off-screen. She was a committed activist on several fronts, becoming an ardent voice for the pro choice movement and AIDS victims. She was also a generous supporter of aspiring chefs, helping them to become more widely known and in developing their craft. But such mentorship was typical for Julia, as she incessantly pleaded with her audiences to approach cooking courageously, without fear of the process or even when it came to making mistakes, developments that she believed could always somehow be fixed. Indeed, she made quite an inspiring impression on those who followed her, and what a legacy she left behind.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could all unreservedly follow our passions? Well, actually, that’s entirely possible as long as we believe in the possibility, for that’s the first step in realizing our dreams. This is the cornerstone principle of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through the power of these intangible building blocks. And, for her part, Julia was truly a master at this. Even if she was unaware of this school of thought, and even if she often approached her dreams with an outwardly unassuming attitude, she nevertheless employed the principles of this practice with the skill and artistry of a culinary virtuoso.
In making this happen, Julia pushed the envelope of creativity, embracing beliefs that overcame any limitations that might have held her back. Of course, that came somewhat easily for her, given that she freely and totally gave in to her passions, pursuing them and the joy and power of creation with unbridled abandon, qualities that became more than apparent in all of her endeavors.
Julia set quite an example in this regard. And it’s one that can be translated into virtually any pursuit, provided we make use of the same principles and embrace the same kinds of fundamental beliefs as she did. We may not all wish to become master chefs, but we can certainly seek to become proficient in other endeavors requiring comparable levels of mastery, be it painting, writing, athletics or virtually any other venture. This truly is a classic case of following one’s heart and relishing the enjoyment that comes from it.
But the example Julia set didn’t end here. She also inspired others by taking on the task of cooking without letting fear get in the way. She found that many aspiring cooks were intimidated by the ways of the kitchen, that they were deathly afraid of making mistakes. Julia never let this stop her, though, and she made that point plainly known through her writings and television appearances. She routinely encouraged her followers to step up to culinary challenges without hesitation, for, if fear were allowed to creep into the mix of manifesting beliefs, disaster could indeed follow. Instead, she urged readers and viewers to approach cooking courageously, without fear. She was not one to wallow in disappointment over kitchen errors. In fact, she saw missteps as learning opportunities so as not to repeat them or even to use one’s creativity to make lemonade from proverbial lemons. Indeed, do-overs were part of kitchen life and shouldn’t be viewed as the end of the world – that is, as long as we put beliefs in place to make such happy endings possible.
Taken together, these qualities combined to forge Julia’s destiny. She may have been a little late coming to it compared to most of us, but eventually she did. And, in doing so, she lived out her value fulfillment, the conscious creation concept associated with being our best, truest selves for the betterment of ourselves and others. Julia took a task that was generally seen as mundane and routine and elevated it to an art form, one worthy of celebration, appreciation and joie de vivre. She revolutionized our notions about cooking and eating and all for the better. She showed us what joy food can bring into our lives and our relationships with others, all served up with hefty helpings of happiness – and, of course, butter.
To call Julia one of a kind is indeed an understatement, and this film makes that abundantly clear. As they did in their documentary “RBG” (2018) about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West serve up another fine offering, a sumptuous buffet of all things Julia, including ample archive footage, recent interviews with friends and colleagues, and gorgeously filmed food that will send viewers on a beeline to the nearest gourmet restaurant upon leaving the theater. Fans of Julia and the art of cooking owe it to themselves to see this lovingly assembled tribute to an icon who accomplished and contributed so much and made it look easy – and fun. The film has been playing at film festivals and in limited theatrical release.
Cooking is an activity that can be viewed as a burdensome chore (something to be dutifully but unenthusiastically checked off our list of daily tasks) or as a joy to be richly savored (especially when one gets to eat the finished product!). Julia showed us the difference, as well as how to go about it in what many of us would likely consider the preferred manner. And, what’s more, she did it with fun, eccentricity and many undeniably blissful rolls of the eyes. Given that, then, one can’t help but ask, “Why wouldn’t someone want to live his or her life like that?” Good question, if you ask me. We’d all probably be a lot better off if we followed Ms. Child’s example and spent our days immersed in what gives us pleasure. After all, when the clock runs out, we wouldn’t want to look back on our lives and wish we’d used more butter and less margarine.
Copyright © 2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.
Wednesday, December 1, 2021
Coming up with great ideas -- and the beliefs needed to back them up -- is one thing, but they don't amount to much if there's no action to see them through. Those looking for inspiration on how to make this happen should consider turning to the movies for ideas. And you can read more about this in "Adventures for Taking 'Action!'" in the latest edition of Modern Warrior magazine, available by clicking here. But wait -- there's more! In the spirit of holiday generosity, readers can now get a copy of this month's issue for free by clicking here. Check it out to see all that's in store in this uplifting online publication!
Monday, November 22, 2021
The Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival recently completed its 2021 edition in its first-ever hybrid format with theatrical and virtual screening options. This flexible approach made it possible for viewers to screen over 90% of its more than 400 feature films and shorts in the traditional manner at multiple locations or from the comfort of their own homes. While some of the virtual presentations were available in Missouri and neighboring Illinois only, many others could be streamed nationwide, making it possible for movie fans to see some excellent films without being in metro St. Louis, an increasingly popular viewing option for many film festivals (and one that I heartily applaud).
Thanks to this format, I was able to screen a great number of films – 23 in all. The festival’s 30th edition had its share of fine offerings (especially in the documentary genre), but there were also some that could have been better. Below are my summary reviews of the releases I watched. Full reviews of select films are to come.
“The Berrigans: Devout and Dangerous” (USA) (5/5)
In times of war and great social challenges, it can be difficult to remain devoted to one’s principles – no matter how strongly we feel about them – when prevailing circumstances threaten to curtail our freedoms and our ability to express our feelings about them. Yet there are courageous, unflappable individuals who refuse to let such conditions stop them, as evidenced by the protests led by activists Philip and Daniel Berrigan and Elizabeth McAllister. In this superb documentary about the lives of these three heroic figures (two priests and a nun who walked their talk when it came to their Catholic values), director Susan Hagedorn chronicles the efforts of these anti-war advocates who destroyed draft records as a means of protesting US involvement in the Vietnam War, along with their activities in the civil rights movement and the early days of the AIDS crisis. They paid dearly for their actions, spending considerable time in prison, but they could not ignore their conscience in carrying out these acts of deliberate defiance. Through a wealth of archive materials and contemporary interviews with family members and those who worked with them (such as actor Martin Sheen and Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg), these three activists brilliantly come to life, both as advocates for their causes and as compassionate, committed individuals, all captured in a highly personal way. This material is supplemented with voiceover narrations of the brothers’ writings read by Liam Neeson and Bill Pullman, adding an intimate and thoughtful dimension to their portrayals. We owe much to these virtuous champions, and this eminently moving film makes that abundantly clear.
“A Sexplanation” (USA) (5/5)
In a culture so pervasively obsessed with sex as ours, it’s amazing that it’s simultaneously so hung up and ignorant about the subject as well. That’s an intriguing paradox filmmaker Alex Liu wanted to explore. So, at age 36, the gay Asian-American director decided to make a documentary about it, one that he hoped would shed some light on this for society at large, not to mention himself, too. As someone who grew up with a shameful outlook about sex, both in terms of his individual orientation and the subject of eroticism in general, he wanted to get to the bottom of this conundrum, especially in light of his apparently robust libido as an adult. In his singularly humorous deep dive into this matter, he interviews a wide range of experts on sexuality and those who have contributed to shaping our collective views on the subject, including researchers, educators, counselors, scientists and religious figures, as well as family members, friends, and everyday men and women on the street across all ages, ethnicities and sexual preferences. The result is an eye-opening cinematic experience, one that offers significant insights and enlightened solutions for addressing willful bashfulness and broad-based ignorance, all served up in a delightfully whimsical, frequently hilarious offering punctuated with clever animation and frank though lighthearted conversations. The filmmaker’s debut feature is a real treat that leaves little to the imagination while pointedly but tactfully informing audiences of all ages on so many different fronts.
“Target: St. Louis Vol. 1” (USA) (5/5)
If watching this damning indictment of reprehensible clandestine activities by the US government in the 1950s and ’60s doesn’t leave you thoroughly appalled, you must not have a conscience, a soul or a shred of humanity in your being. Director Damien D. Smith’s debut documentary feature tells the story of how the US military, in conjunction with various defense contractors, intentionally exposed residents of a predominantly African-American housing project in St. Louis to repeated open air dustings of toxic chemicals to determine what effects the substances would have on them, all without their knowledge or consent. The result was a host of serious illnesses, including rampant forms of cancer, that affected individuals at the time and many years later. What’s worse, because of legal technicalities, victims were effectively unable to sue any of the parties involved. Through interviews with survivors of the testing, as well as researchers and advocates working to bring the truth to light, the filmmaker has produced a shocking release that is bound to leave viewers incensed about what transpired – especially when it’s revealed that this sort of deplorable Third Reich-style form of experimentation may be only one such example of what our government had done (or could still be doing) without telling us. This is a powerful wake-up call, folks.
“Alien on Stage” (UK) (4/5)
When an amateur British theater company decides to do something different for its annual holiday charity production, the crew goes out on a limb to stage a work that’s truly out of this world – a theatrical adaptation of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi cinematic classic, “Alien.” As audacious as this undertaking might be, however, the play’s initial run in the company’s hometown of Dorset is a flop. But, when the show catches the attention of documentary directors Lucy Harvey and Danielle Kummer, the company’s fates change dramatically. The filmmakers help the amateur troupe secure an opportunity to stage a performance of the play in London’s West End – and to a sold-out crowd at that. Thus begins this chronicle of an unlikely production brought to life both on stage and in this hilariously offbeat documentary. While the film could use a little more background about the principal players, this wickedly funny saga about a horror classic transformed into a campy romp provides meticulous behind-the-scenes detail, intercut with footage from the film original to provide context and comparison. Most of all, though, this is a fitting tribute to all the underdogs out there who are willing to stick their necks out and attempt the untried, all the while having fun and ultimately attaining unexpected yet much deserved success.
“Americanish” (USA) (4/5)
Though somewhat uneven, sometimes predictable and occasionally formulaic, this otherwise-delightful rom-com about the budding love lives of two Pakistani-American sisters (Aizzah Fatima, Salena Qureshi) and their immigrant cousin (Shenaz Treasury), along with the intrusive meddling of their overbearing mother/aunt (Lillete Dubey), pleases on virtually all counts. This charming debut feature from writer-director Iman K. Zawahry explores the triumphs and challenges of balancing career, impending marriage, entrenched tradition and evolving values, and it does so with insight, candor and gentle humor, successfully fusing the traditional romance and cross-cultural assimilation genres. Watch for more from this filmmaker given the great start she has had with this release.
“Delicate State” (USA) (4/5)
Imagine if you were parents-to-be, blissfully happy about the impending blessed event, when suddenly a devastating civil war breaks out. That’s what happens to a young middle class couple living in an unidentified American city as they await the birth of their first child, all the details of which are meticulously recorded in a video diary filmed during the increasingly troubled pregnancy. After a somewhat slow and slightly unfocused start, writer-actor-director Paula Rhodes’s debut feature soon changes lanes and tells a chilling story that grows ever-more compelling as it unfolds, leaving viewers on edge as they witness developments taking place in a simulated real-time context. The picture brings an added touch of realism to the narrative as it was filmed during the actor-director’s own pregnancy, accompanied by real-life husband Charlie Bodin as the protagonist’s co-star. The result is a startlingly eclectic mix of unnerving terror and relentless hope fused into one story with an all-too-familiar sociopolitical backdrop. Handily, this is one of the most unusual releases I’ve seen in some time, yet it offers us a potent cautionary tale that we had better take seriously if we expect our society to survive – or otherwise run the risk of lawless, uncontrolled collapse.
“A Matter of Perspective” (“Eine Sache der Perspektive”) (Austria) (4/5)
How we perceive the nature of a particular situation ultimately depends on the perspective we each hold about it, even when those outlooks don’t agree with one another. But how can that be if the scenario is fundamentally “the same” for all concerned? That’s where the fallacy of this notion becomes apparent, and director Gerda Leopold’s second feature does a fine job of illustrating this through a collection of interwoven stories (mostly of romantic and relationship matters) involving 10 characters whose paths cross in myriad synchronistic ways. What’s most intriguing about these interactions, however, is how diversely the various participants in these scenarios view their circumstances compared to one another, despite their mutual involvement in them. Ironically, one of the film’s greatest strengths is its reluctance to provide definitive resolution to many of the narrative’s incidents, reinforcing the notion that, given differing perspectives, there often is no set answer that applies across the board. Admittedly there are some elements of this Austrian production that seem to be somewhat truncated, but that’s a small price to pay for an otherwise-engaging film, one that features a fine ensemble cast and some inventive camera work, with cinematography aptly befitting the picture’s subject matter. A delicious indie gem.
“My So-Called Selfish Life” (USA) (4/5)
A woman’s life isn’t complete until she has a child and becomes a mother, right? Well, that may be the traditional view, but, is it still true today? And, for those who have opted to go the childless route, why is there such a strong backlash against their decision? Don’t they, as adults, have the right to make up their own minds? In light of this, director Therese Schechter, who has intentionally chosen to forego motherhood, decided to make a documentary on the subject, examining all of the implications involved, including those of a cultural, personal, familial, vocational and lifestyle nature. Through interviews with physicians, sociologists, researchers, advocates and women who have purposely chosen to go childless, intercut with clever animation and clips from movies and TV, the filmmaker presents an insightful look at the options today’s women have – choices that previous generations largely lacked, an outlook that enabled the prevailing view about motherhood to become so firmly entrenched. While this offering may ruffle some feathers among traditionalists, the film nevertheless gives a big, polite middle finger to those who try to dictate terms to women based on arguments that amount to little more than “Because I said so.” A real eye-opener, especially for those who continue to believe they have no choice in the matter.
“Soy Cubana” (Cuba/USA) (4/5)
How frustrating it must be to have talent – and a tremendous gift to give the world – only to be thwarted by bureaucratic red tape and needless, outdated government restrictions. So it has been for many Cuban artists looking to showcase their talents abroad. Fortunately, though, there have been some lucky breakthroughs, such as those that occurred during a narrow window from 2015 to 2017, when cultural exchange relations between the US and Cuba were briefly relaxed, enabling artists like the Vocal Vidas – a Cuban a capella quartet – to slip through a visitation window that allowed the talented foursome to give three performances in Los Angeles. The process was not an easy one to negotiate, as the window of opportunity was in the process of closing, but the Vidas were able to pass through in time, to the benefit of everyone who saw them perform live and to those viewing this documentary about their storied odyssey. Directors Ivaylo Getov and Jeremy Ungar have assembled a delightful chronicle of their journey, including footage of their performances, as well as the complex process of securing visitation visas to perform in the US. The film features ample footage of their singing, both in the US and Cuba, as well as insights into their respective lives, both as performers and as individuals struggling to get by in the fiscally strapped island nation. A truly delightful, uplifting, inspiring watch.
“Voodoo Macbeth” (USA) (4/5)
When the Roosevelt Administration launched the Federal Theatre Project in 1935 as part of the government-sponsored New Deal program, that initiative included a Negro Unit specifically aimed at developing African-American theatrical productions. One of that unit’s most auspicious undertakings was the staging of an all-Black cast adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, set in Haiti instead of Scotland. To get this version of the play into production, unit heads Rose McClendon (Inger Tudor) and John Houseman (Daniel Kuhlman) hired a 20-year-old neophyte director named Orson Welles (Jewell Wilson Bridges) to bring it to life. Welles had a bold vision for this Harlem-based production, but he encountered endless challenges in making it happen, including multiple casting issues, funding obstacles initiated by a Congressman (Hunter Bodine) who claimed the play was “Communist propaganda” and the director’s own obsessive, self-destructive behavior. Nevertheless, the cast and crew soldiered on, despite these obstacles, to put their own spin on this classic tale. This docudrama, a project of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, was written by a team of eight students and shot by a crew of 10 top graduate students, a collaboration that has resulted in a fine finished product. Some of the writing is a bit over the top at times, and some of the acting is admittedly rather hammy (and not in the Shakespearean sequences, where one would most likely expect it), but the casting overall is quite solid, as are the period piece production values. It’s gratifying to see a student project turn out as polished as this one has, making it a film that deservedly warrants a general release to reach a wider audience.
“Archipelago” (“Archipel”) (Canada) (3/5)
This experimental animated film offering from director Félix Dufour-Laperrière is indeed difficult to categorize. On one hand, it feels like a cinematic meditation, a poetic visual tone poem. On the other hand, it comes across like a metaphysical, metaphorical, surrealistic travelogue to the islands of Quebec’s St. Lawrence River, attempting to draw connections between what has arisen there and those who created it – us. While the visuals certainly work beautifully, the narrative is often scattered, appearing more than a little disjointed and wonky as the film’s river journey to the ocean progresses. Kudos are definitely in order for the French Canadian filmmaker’s attempt at something different here, but there is something to be said for invoking restraint over unrestricted free rein, as is more than apparent in the finished product. It’s an ambitious effort that is likely to leave viewers visually dazzled but somewhat perplexed, as every review I have read of this film has interpreted it differently (and often at wide variance from one another). Make of it what you will.
“Atlas” (Switzerland/Belgium/Italy) (3/5)
In filmmaking, it’s one thing to build suspense and something else entirely to forestall the obvious and inevitable. Unfortunately, in director Niccolò Castelli’s second feature, he seems to believe that he’s doing the former when, in fact, the film is more rooted in the latter. This fact-based story about a young Swiss woman (Matilda De Angelis) who loses three close friends (including her partner (Nicola Perot)) in a terrorist bombing in a popular Moroccan café while they’re on a trip to climb the nation’s legendary Atlas Mountains chronicles her efforts to recover from the incident, both physically and emotionally. As noble and inspiring as that may be, however, the overlong preamble leading up to the film’s depiction of that event – covering almost two-thirds of the movie – is needlessly stretched out, stringing along viewers toward something that they know is coming but that continually seems to get put off. The sought-after suspense just isn’t there, because everyone essentially knows what’s coming beforehand. While the film successfully makes observant statements about Western society’s pervasive fear of potentially traumatic events, as well as the inherent paranoia that often accompanies interaction with those of different ethnic and religious backgrounds, its primary narrative thread about the protagonist’s recovery could have been handled better on more than a few occasions, especially in the picture’s protracted and overly cryptic opening segment. A well-intentioned but mishandled attempt at telling a story that could have been far more compelling if treated differently.
“Confetti” (USA) (3/5); Rotten Tomatoes (***)
As noble and uplifting as this family drama is, especially in its depiction of a concerned parent willing to do anything to help her child, the film is a little too rote all around to make it engaging and affecting. Writer-director Ann Hu’s third feature addresses the issue of dyslexia and what a loving mother (Zhu Zhu) puts herself through to aid her daughter (Harmonie He), a victim of an inadequate, unenlightened Chinese education system, to help her get the assistance she needs to overcome her learning disability. With the assistance of an American teacher (George C. Tronsrue) on an educational exchange program, mother and child subsequently relocate to New York to get that help, aided by one the educator’s friends (Amy Irving), an assertive, disabled writer who takes them in. Once there, the narrative faithfully follows the tried-and-true formula of what’s involved in realizing that objective, touching on each required development in precise, perfectly timed order. While the film may indeed be informative about its subject matter, its predictable presentation format could have just as easily been used to address almost any other health-related, psychological or social issue; simply plug in the right pieces to achieve the desired result. Ironically, though, there are also some crucial story elements that are all too easily glossed over, making one wonder how these significant developments occur with surprisingly remarkable ease. Then there’s the casting, which could use some shoring up, too; while Zhu and He are fine, the supporting performances leave much to be desired, particularly those turned in by Irving and Helen Slater as a special school administrator, both of whom could have easily phoned in their portrayals. Clearly, this is a picture with its heart and intentions in the right place, but its execution needs more spit, polish and imagination to draw audiences in and keep them suitably riveted.
“The Kinloch Doc” (USA) (3/5)
The City of Kinloch, Missouri, located just east of the St. Louis airport, is the oldest incorporated African-American community west of the Mississippi River. Yet, because of deliberate political maneuverings, the city has slowly been eaten up by dubious governmental initiatives, forcing many residents out and leaving only a small remaining population, placing the municipality’s very existence in jeopardy. Director Alana Marie’s chronicle of a city of hard-working, family-oriented individuals that has been systematically torn apart by manipulative forces in the name of progress and serving the greater good reveals a frightening and nefarious pattern that has happened in minority-dominated communities in other parts of the US, one in which residents have been taken advantage of on multiple fronts. However, as effective as the film is at documenting these issues, the overall project feels a little thin and somewhat incomplete, mainly due to only scant inclusion of material on why residents have such beloved feelings for their community. Given the film’s mere 50-minute runtime, there is certainly room for more information about the people of Kinloch and not just the problems they have had to endure, details that would have certainly amplified the nature of the injustices being perpetrated here and made the story more personal in the process. As it stands, this documentary feels like a first cut that could benefit from some supplementation and reworking to strengthen the arguments behind what happened to Kinloch and why such practices should cease, both there and in other at-risk communities around the country, while reminding viewers that this is a story about people and not just property.
“The Lonely Man” (China) (3/5)
Retirement can be a frightening prospect for many individuals, especially those who have occupied their jobs for a long time and aren’t sure what they’ll do with themselves when such familiarity is absent from their lives. So it is for a gas station manager in a remote Chinese province who serves his community by doing more than just pumping petrol. Can he bear the idea of giving up the sense of impassioned, personalized responsibility that he has cultivated with his constituency over the past 20 years? And what of the young apprentice successor he’s training – can he adequately follow in his predecessor’s footsteps? Those are the questions raised in director Han Wanfeng’s touching comedy-drama about life in the snowy frontier at the base of Tianshan Mountain in China’s Kazakh region. As delightful and heartfelt as the film often is, however, it’s somewhat episodic and predictable at times, along with some elements that seem odd and out of place, such as a Bollywood-inspired musical number featuring a colorful performance of a Kazakh folk song. There is also an issue with the subtitling, which is quite small, full of typos and frequently moves by at a rapid-fire pace. Nevertheless, despite these shortcomings, this gorgeously filmed offering is generally enjoyable, the kind of picture that will definitely tug at the heartstrings and bring more than a few smiles to one’s face.
“Solutions” (Denmark) (3/5)
Coming up with viable solutions to the world’s many ills these days is by no means easy. There are myriad problems, and they’re often interrelated in ways that are difficult to identify, diagnose, quantify and resolve. Issues related to the environment, economics, democracy, inequality, communication and a host of other matters are difficult to address because of this intrinsic interconnectedness. So what do we do? In the days before the pandemic, a 10-day conference was organized involving 20 high-level experts in these and other fields. They met in New Mexico to discuss potential solutions, and this gathering provided the basis of the latest documentary project from Danish filmmaker Pernille Rose Grønkjær. The result is an engaging collection of recorded segments from the group’s sessions, as well as clips from interviews with individual participants, each examining the greatest challenges we face and proposing potential solutions. The film itself is well-organized and clearly defines the issues, providing concise summaries of how we might address them. However, as much as I enjoyed the presentations here, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the content itself. Many of the proposals come across as well thought out but overly intellectualized – Ivory Tower propositions that may well be needed but seem unlikely of ever being implemented for one very basic reason: they do not take adequate account of the impact of the current state of human nature. To believe that everyday citizens of the earth will simply agree with these lofty, principled ideas because experts tell them they should seems wholly naïve, even if they have the potential to rectify things. Without a corresponding change in human nature, no amount of intellectualism – no matter how seemingly well-reasoned – is going to get us out of the mess we’re in now. And, unfortunately, the film may offer good ideas but false hopes for getting the job done at a point in our history where time may be running out.
“A World for Julius” (“Un mundo para Julius”) (Peru/Argentina/Spain) (3/5)
Picture yourself as a young boy from an affluent family in Lima, Peru in the 1950s. You live in a grand mansion with multiple servants in the lap of luxury. You’re an inquisitive, observant, sensitive child, but there’s much around you in your family and society at large that you don’t understand. Much of it doesn’t make sense to you, either, such as racism, sexism, abuses of power, bullying, discrimination, class prejudice, and, of course, death. Why, you wonder, do these things exist? That’s the challenge for a five-year-old (Rodrigo Barba) growing up in a world of privilege that often leaves him sad and lonely, especially when it comes to most of the family members who ignore him. In fact, the servants are about his only friends, people he adores and who return the favor in kind. Based on the 1970 novel of the same name by Alfredo Bryce Echenique, a work considered one of the most significant works of Latin American literature, director Rossana Diaz Costa’s made-for-TV movie does a generally fine job of capturing the angst of its young protagonist, despite the fact that it tends to lose its way in the final act, especially at the very end. However, in the first two-thirds of the film, don’t be surprised if it tugs at the old heartstrings and maybe even brings a well-earned tear or two to your eye. The filmmaker’s second feature is by no means a bad film, though, with some shoring up in the home stretch, it definitely could have been better.
“The Teacher” (“Muallim”) (Turkey) (2/5)
When a member of the early 20th Century political reform group Young Turks returns home to the Ottoman Empire after earning his engineering degree in Paris, his political views get him exiled by the government to a small town in Anatolia to teach school to the destitute community’s children. While there, the teacher sees firsthand why he’s fighting for reform, but he’s frustrated at every turn, with his freedom (and even his life) put in jeopardy whenever he seeks to champion his ideals and the well-being of the uneducated and exploited townsfolk. As inspiring as this fact-driven story might seem, however, the film suffers from a woefully unfocused screenplay, with a narrative that continually jumps around without serious development and punctuated by some of the corniest dialogue I’ve seen in a movie in years. Director Muslim Sahin appears to have all the makings of a good movie here, but the finished product is so far off the mark that one can’t help but wonder where it’s headed virtually from start to finish.
“We Burn Like This” (USA) (2/5)
The issues of anti-Semitism and Neo-Nazism, regrettably. are still alive and well, and they even show their faces in some unlikely locations, such as Montana’s Big Sky Country. Director Alana Waksman’s debut feature deals with this very subject and from a perspective based on actual incidents. The film follows the story of Rae (Madeleine Coghlan), a young Jewish woman living in Billings whose grandparents survived the Holocaust. However, much to her dismay, she’s now being targeted for harassment by hate groups, sending her into a downward spiral of depression and substance abuse. She finds herself living the religious persecution of her forbears, and she’s not entirely sure what to do about it. After a hospital stay for an overdose and an ongoing inability to resolve her circumstances, Rae pays a visit to her mother (Kendra Mylnechuk) in Butte, where she learns of and recalls other painful memories from her past, forcing her to either take control of her life or be consumed by it. Unfortunately, the film has trouble pulling all of this together to make for a coherent and compelling picture. The narrative often feels scattered, jumping around at random and skimping in terms of back story along the way. It’s too bad, given that it seems like there’s a good movie in there somewhere; it just never seems to surface.
“The White Fortress” (“Tabija”) (Bosnia and Herzegovina/Canada) (2/5)
This is one of those movies where viewers wait 90 minutes for something to happen and nothing really does. Director Igor Drljaća’s latest tells the story of two Sarajevo teens (Pavle Cemerikic, Sumeja Dardagan) from different social and economic backgrounds who half-heartedly pursue an unconvincing romantic involvement, one that develops at a snail’s pace between individuals who have virtually nothing in common beyond their ability to stumble through deadpan, understated banter. To the film’s credit, it does a fine job developing the character of the two protagonists, but it doesn’t give them much to do. What’s more, the picture’s attempt at trying to fuse reality with fairytale-like qualities occasionally seems promising, but it, too, often falls short of its potential. The result is a meandering, unfocused tale that always seems to hold out the promise of a payoff, but regrettably it never comes. This one is easily skipped.
“The Insurer” (“L’asseureur”) (Belgium) (1/5)
What an absolute mess of a movie. This Belgian offering from director Antoine vans can’t seem to make up its mind if it wants to be a crime caper, a rom-com, a buddy movie or some fusion of all three genres. But, to make matters worse, it’s peppered with irrelevant asides, implausible plot devices, needlessly hyped electronic graphic highlights that add absolutely nothing to the narrative and some of the worst subtitling work I’ve ever seen in a foreign film. I could go on further about this one, but I frankly don’t see the point since this is not worth wasting one’s time to watch. Quite a disappointment, given that there is a lot of material here that could easily have been worked up into something fun and entertaining, but that opportunity is lost early on in a film that never manages to recover.
Copyright © 2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.