A (not-so-quick) take on Kieślowski’s Dekalog

About a year ago, I watched a few films from Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski, and enjoyed them. Today I’m biting into his Dekalog, a 1988 TV series, which is sort of a modern take on the Biblical Ten Commandments. 10 episodes, each an hour in length, tackling a new philosophical approach to each commandment. Each episode stands alone. The only shared aspect is the setting, as they all take place in the same apartment/housing complex.

Going in order, the first episode deals with the first commandment. In it, a man is teaching his son to have faith only in facts and science. Everything is measurable and definable, and the boy, who is very bright, enjoys solving equations on one of the family computers. When the boy has questions about what happens after death, the dad is very matter-of-fact, saying there is nothing after death, but the boy gets very different answers from his aunt, a devout Catholic. In the end, we learn that science can’t always predict everything. The second episode focuses on the power of human words and their affect on people. A woman begs a doctor for his opinion on if her ailing husband will live or die. She’s become pregnant by another man, and at her age, she has a decision to make: keep it and alienate her husband, or abort, possibly her last chance to have a child. If she loved one man more than the other, the decision would be easier, but she admits she loves them equally. The doctor however refuses to say; he’s seen miracles too often to make a decision.

Instead of the Sabbath, the third episode focuses on the importance of a single day, Christmas Eve. Janusz is a taxi driver returning home on Christmas Eve, first dressed up as Santa for his kids, and then in a private toast with his wife and mother-in-law. At midnight mass, he spots Ewa, his former mistress who broke up with him 3 years ago when they were caught red handed by her husband Edward. Ewa approaches Janusz for help, saying her husband never returned home that day. Janusz makes up a lame excuse to his wife and heads out with Ewa to try to find Edward, and they spend the entire night until morning in doing so, but Janusz starts to suspect more is at play. The fourth episode deals with the relationship between a father and his daughter. Anka is a college student living with her single father Michal, and he is going out of town for a few days for work. While he’s away, she finds a sealed envelope in his desk with directions not to open until his death. Morbidly curious, she opens it, and finds inside a letter from her mother, who died just after giving birth to her. Anka learns the family secret: that Michal is not her biological father, but that he would raise her as such. Michal is hurt that she learned this while he is still alive, but Anka flips it on him, saying that she has always been remotely attracted to him but kept her feelings buried, knowing they were wrong since he was her father. He admits much the same. But the real truth isn’t revealed until the very end (or is it?).

Part of Kieślowski’s deal to make this series was to make longer cuts of 2 of the episodes, and turn them into feature films for theater release. The first of these was the fifth episode, and after a little research, I heard the consensus is that the film is basically just a longer version. So instead of the 1 hour episode, I watched the film, A Short Film About Killing (for the fifth commandment). Three main characters here: a jerk taxi driver named Waldemar who creeps on young woman, an idealist young lawyer fresh off his bar exam named Piotr, and a sadist named Jacek. Jacek derives pleasure from pushing rocks onto cars from overpasses, pushing guys into urinals in public bathrooms, and shooing away pigeons when an old lady is trying to feed them. But he has more sinister plans: carrying around rope and a metal rod in his backpack, he sets his sights on a murder. Waldemar is the unlucky guy when he picks Jacek up, and the gruesome murder does ensue. However, Jacek seems to not enjoy it as much as he thought he would, and in the next scene, taking place a year later when he has been caught, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death, he appears truly contrite. His lawyer was Piotr, who anguishes over not being able to save Jacek from his fate. You would think that the whole “thou shalt not kill” would focus on Jacek’s crime, but instead, the film comes off as an inditement against the death penalty. Whether you believe that Jacek should be punished for his brutal crime this way or not, the film does argue that there was a human being worthy of redemption inside the killer that was Jacek’s body. Great, suspenseful film, with a message that is still timely.

I’ll return to the second film later, because I hear it is actually much different than its counterpart in the Dekalog series, so for now, I’m going back to episode 6. Instead of focusing on adultery, the director chooses to go the heart of the matter: love. Tomek is a 19-year-old living with his friend’s mother while the friend is away. He’s a bright student, but is obsessed with a mid-to-late 30’s woman who lives in the apartment across the way from his. Using a telescope, he spies on her every night, calls her to hear her voice (never answering her “hello”), and finds ways to get her to come to his place of work, the post office. He even gets a second job as a milk deliveryman in order to visit her apartment regularly. She is unaware of the spying until he is forced to admit it during one of the ploys to get her to his job. She is rightfully angry at first, but it isn’t long until his innocence turns her head. She’s had a jaded outlook on love and sex for years, and is now drawn to Tomek’s innocent love.

(By the way, I did go back and watch the longer version, A Short Film About Love, later. It is definitely a much different film than the episode. It paints Tomek more as a calculated figure, portraying his rituals in voyeurism leading up the events in the shorter TV version. There’s an expanded beginning, more time devoted to the lady Tomek lives with and her love and caring for him, and the end is a much different, happier ending.)

Episode 7 gives a twist on “thou shalt not steal.” In this one, Majka kidnaps her sister Ania, only to reveal that Ania isn’t her sister; it is her daughter. Impregnated at 16 by a teacher at school (where her mother was the headmistress), Majka agreed to let her mother raise the girl as her own. But it didn’t turn out as Majka wished, as she grew jealous in not being able to raise Ania the way she wished. Now in her early 20s, she has plans to take Ania to Canada and start a new life. Lots of things were stolen here, Majka’s chance to be a mother not the least of them. The eighth episode is all about truth. Elżbieta is a younger woman visiting Poland from the USA. She’s friends with Zofia, an older woman who teaches ethics at the university. Zofia and Elżbieta have been professional friends for awhile, but share a connection of which Zofia is unaware. Elżbieta sits in on one of Zofia’s lectures, where students propose ethics questions for discussion. One student submits the problem from Dekalog 2. Elżbieta submits her own. She says that during World War II, a young Jewish girl was brought to a Catholic family for hiding, but that he family, a husband and wife, had changed their minds and turned the child away at the door. As it turns out, Zofia was the wife, and Elżbieta was the girl. Elżbieta has known this for some time, but never told Zofia when they’d met in the past.

Episode 9 deals with faithfulness in marriage. Roman has just received a diagnosis of impotence from his doctor, that he will no longer be able to maintain an erection. He goes home to his younger, beautiful wife, Hanka, and tells her that she should be satisfied, and has his permission to end their marriage and find a lover. She assures him that sex is not that important, that she loves him and will not stray. However, Roman begins to suspect that she already has a young lover on the side, and his jealousy gets the better of him. The final episode focuses on greed. Two adult brothers come together for their estranged father’s funeral. After his burial, they go to his flat and find that he had a multi-million dollar stamp collection. Rather than bringing them together, this event opens up schisms of paranoia between them.

I really enjoyed this series. For one, it is extremely even, meaning, I don’t think there were any “bad” episodes. I have my favorites (4, 5, and 7), but I think if you asked 10 viewers, you’ll get different answers based on how each episode speaks to you. There’s the overall theme of the episode, but also a lot of subtle things going on that you can spend time thinking about later on. Overall, I found them to be only lightly based on the Ten Commandments, and instead, more of a philosophical approach to the underlying meanings of those commandments (adultery boiling down to loving your spouse, coveting goods more to being content with what you have). Though not overtly religious, there is a cool moment in nearly every episode involving a non-speaking character, the only character who runs throughout the series, who looks on, often at an important junction for the main character of that episode. Is it an angel? A conscience? The characters definitely have different reactions to him, depending on their motives. Great stuff. ★★★★

  • TV series currently watching: Gotham (season 2)
  • Book currently reading: Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King

Quick takes on Our Friend and other films

I’m a sucker for the Pinocchio story, and was excited to see the latest Italian version from director Matteo Garrone (there’s yet another coming soon from Netflix, a stop motion musical from director Guillermo del Toro). This version is a live action film, with youngster Federico Ielapi in the title role, and Roberto Benigni as Gepetto. There’s nothing I can say about the plot that you don’t know, so I’ll just give my thoughts. I really loved this film; it has the look and feel of a magical fable. It is much darker than the classic Disney film; it was made as an adaptation of the original 1883 Italian book, and not a remake of the Disney picture. As such, there are parts that are quite unsettling, and this is not a film for little kids (it has a PG-13 rating for “disturbing images”). But while there are some scary moments, it still made me feel like a kid again, and I was enchanted throughout. Well acted, and beautiful shot in Tuscany, it is a true magical film. On a side note, I watched it in the original Italian, though the director also had the film dubbed in English and I hear that version is done well too, for those that don’t want to read subtitles. ★★★★

Benigni’s part in the above film got me to thinking about his other work, so I hunted down the movie that was his biggest success, 1997’s Life is Beautiful, which he wrote, directed, and starred in. Before now, my only experience with him was a couple of Jim Jarmusch’s films (which I liked) and Federico Fellini’s final movie (which I didn’t). Life is Beautiful is one of those films that shouldn’t be good, yet it is. It tackles an uncomfortable subject with humor and a unique perspective. In 1930s Italy, Guido is a Jewish man who lives life to the fullest. The first half of the film or so involves him ignoring the political changes of the country while pursuing a woman who fate keeps pushing him into. Honestly this first half was a bit of a bore for me, as Benigni’s style of humor is on the edge of whimsical, but bordering on annoying. In the second half, picking up 4 or so years later, where Guido and Dora are married with young son, Giosuè, we get to the meat of the film. Guido and Giosuè are picked up and loaded on a train for a camp, and Dora begs to be put on a train too, so as to not be separated from them. Guido has shielded his son from the evils going on in the world, and so Giosuè has no idea what’s going on. Guido keeps the charade going, telling his son that the train it taking them on a grand adventure, and when they arrive, explaining it all as a big game; if they follow the rules, they’ll win. It’s a wonderful film about a man trying to save some innocence in his son by any means necessary. Watching it, I didn’t know if I should laugh at Guido’s games, or cry at the terribleness of it all. The mix of these emotions is what makes it so great. ★★★★½

Days of the Bagnold Summer is a dull English “comedy” about a teenager stuck at home with his single mom for the summer. Daniel was supposed to go spend the summer with his dad in Florida, but his often-absent father was busy having a new baby with his new wife, so he cancelled on him. Daniel and his mom Sue spend the summer butting heads. She nags him to get a job, but Daniel, a Metallica lover through and through, has dreams of joining a metal band (he doesn’t play an instrument, but he can be a “front man”). Meanwhile, Sue might have a new boyfriend, one of Daniel’s former teachers, which creeps Daniel out to no end. Sound funny? It’s not. This is about as dull a movie as I’ve seen in awhile, as boring as Daniel looks throughout the picture. It elicited a couple half-chuckles from me here and there, but that is it. Halfway through, I was ready to claw my eyes out, out of sheer apathy for either of these dull people. Do families really live like this? ★

Identifying Features is a very slow burning Mexican drama tackling the current immigration environment. There are a lot of films out there following people crossing the border and their struggles, but this one takes a new perspective: what about the family left behind? In the beginning of the film, Magdalena bids her son farewell as he and a friend head north from Mexico for opportunities in the USA. Months go by without him calling or checking in, and Magdalena begins to worry. She heads for the border to see if she can find some news, but doesn’t get any closure. She finds out that some buses that head towards the border are waylaid and robbed, and there’s a good chance her son has been killed. Still, no concrete answers, and Magdalena continues her search. At the same time, the film is following another young man, Miguel, whose been in the states for a little while, but who was just caught and deported. He is returning to Mexico, but the mother he left behind is missing from their home. He and Magdalena cross paths and continue their journey together for a time. The viewer sees Miguel’s and Magdalena’s shared stories from both sides of the coin. This slow drama may not be for everyone, as there’s no real action (outside of 5-10 minutes in the very end), and it is very much a thoughtful, introspective kind of film. The ending is a huge gut punch though, and very much worth building towards. ★★★★

Sometimes the stars align, and I get to watch a bunch of good movies in a row. Except for the one clunker in this grouping, that was the case here, and I’m ending on the highest note yet. Our Friend is an endearing film about the bonds of love and friendship in the most trying of times. Matt (Casey Affleck) and Nicole (Dakota Johnson) are dealing with a terminal diagnosis of cancer in Nicole. Matt hasn’t always been the best dad to their two daughters, having been absent for work for a couple years, and he’s a bit overwhelmed with everything, so family friend Dane (Jason Segel) moves in to help. The movie jumps around regularly, in both present day (2013) as well as the decade or so leading up to it, including moments like when Dane and Matt met, bumpy moments in Matt’s and Nicole’s relationship, etc., always stating how many years or months it was before “the diagnosis,” which is really when everything changed. Dane is a goofy guy who hasn’t seemed to get his life on track, himself suffering from depression, but he is rock steady for this family when they need him, even when others start to drift away, as people do when faced with such a terrible event as the impending death of a friend. I was moved, I laughed, and, of course, I cried. Spectacular movie with all three main actors on their game. Segel has shown his range before, and Affleck already has a bunch of awards under his belt, but I’ve just recently started to change my mind about Johnson. After the 50 Shades films, I wanted to dismiss her as just a pretty face with movie star parents helping her in the industry, but several films in the last couple years (Bad Times at the El Royale, The Peanut Butter Falcon) have made me rethink that. This one is as good as it gets. ★★★★★

  • TV series currently watching: Gotham (season 2)
  • Book currently reading: Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King

Quick takes on Promising Young Woman and other films

Driveways is a one of those nice, quiet movies that easily moves the audience through its subtleness. It follows a single mother and her son, Kathy and Cody, as they arrive to her sister’s house in quiet suburbia. Kathy’s sister has just died with no other family, so Kathy is there to sell the house. They’ve been estranged for many years, and to Kathy’s horror, she sees that her sister was a hoarder, and the house is packed. As Kathy and Cody being to clean it up, they get to know a couple of the the neighbors, and in particular, the ornery old man next door, Del. Cody’s always had a hard time making friends, but he makes an unlikely one in the form of Del. It’s a very human story about love and understanding, and interactions between people regardless of background or ideals. Very nice work from Hong Chau, young Lucas Jaye, and especially Brian Dennehy as Del. It was one of the acclaimed actor’s last roles; he died a month before the film’s release. ★★★½

Minor Premise is about a scientist messing with human memory, and using himself as the test subject. Building off his renowned father’s work in the field, Ethan has been mapping memories in the human brain and finding a way to show them on screen like it was recorded with a camera. He makes a breakthrough and is able to map 9 distinct aspects of the human mind, with the 10th being a “default,” carrying all 9 at the same time. By looking at a map of where the activity of each aspect is most prevalent in the brain, Ethan deduces which aspect is his logic or intelligence, and turns that aspect up for 1 hour, to see if he really is smarter for that time. Unfortunately in his loosey-goosey experiment, things do not go as planned. Ethan immediately starts having blackouts, and seems to only be aware of his surroundings for a 6 minute stretch every hour or so. With the help of his research partner and former girlfriend, Ali, they determine that each aspect of Ethan’s mind is getting control of his body for 6 minutes, and then another takes control. These aren’t multiple personalities, as it is still Ethan, just different aspects of his mind, with the other parts of his mind shut off, so they aren’t remembering what each other is doing. The strain is slowly but surely killing Ethan, and so the race is on to get him back to normal, before the more violent aspects of Ethan’s mind really get him into trouble. The film has a fascinating premise (hardy har), but in practice, it wasn’t as good as the idea. Long before the credits rolled, I had almost checked out, and just watched to see how it ended. The actors are rough too, which can sometimes be forgiven for a low budget film. It was nice to see Dana Ashbrook (Bobby Riggs from Twin Peaks!), but let’s face it, he’s not winning any awards either. ★★

I’ve seen most of Ang Lee’s films (so many good ones! But The Ice Storm is probably my favorite), but I’ve somehow always missed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It was finally time to cross that off the list. The film centers around a handful of main characters in 19th century China. Li Mu Bai is a renowned swordsman looking to finally lay down his mythical sword Green Destiny, and retire. He’s bested every foe put in front of him except for “the one that got away:” the Jade Fox, an assassin who killed his master many years ago. Mu Bai’s heart belongs to Yu Shu Lien, but through a twist of fate, they never pursued a relationship. In this setting, the Jade Fox returns, with a new young pupil. This mystery girl is revealed pretty early in the film, and there’s a second love story involving her and a desert bandit. If it sounds a bit convoluted, it is, but the story isn’t what people talk about most when this film comes up; that praise is saved for the action sequences. The hand-to-hand battle scenes are spectacular even 20 years after the film was released, and from what I’ve read, very little CGI was used, mostly just to remove the suspension wires that allowed the fighters to fly through the air. They’re good enough that I found myself wanting to pause the movie and rewind just to re-watch them! It’s a high-octane action film with (just) enough heart to keep you intrigued when there’s no fighting going on. ★★★★

Character development? Nope. Deep, involved plot? Who needs it?! We get mindless action in Godzilla vs Kong. I didn’t expect outstanding cinema, but I enjoyed it for the same reason I enjoy the Fast and the Furious films: they know their audience, and they deliver the thrills. In this sequel to the newer Godzilla and Kong films, our two big titans meet up to go toe to toe, wrecking any planes, boats, or skyscrapers in their way. There’s a half-assed story about a big bad tech company trying to harness power to defeat these titans at their own game, but let’s be honest, if you are watching this movie, you aren’t quibbling over a little thing like plot holes. What’s weird about this movie is, it has a really strong cast, but they actually perform “down” to their roles, rather than lift them up. There’s more eye-roll worthy moments from the dialogue alone than I recall in any movie I’ve seen lately. But damn, I was entertained. ★★★½

I’ve been hearing about Promising Young Woman, and particularly Carey Mulligan in the lead, since it came out, and I’m just now finally getting a chance to see it. It’s a great film, about a woman whose life hasn’t turned out as she expected. 30-year-old Cassie once had a promising career path, but dropped out of med school years ago, and has been living with her parents while working in a coffee shop. For kicks, she dresses up sexy and goes to bars to get picked up, but those hookups never go the way the men want. She fakes being drunk until a man takes her to his place, and just when he starts to make his movie, she sobers up quickly, all in order to frighten the man into maybe not taking advantage of another girl in the future. All of this is due to the event that set her life off course in med school. At the time, her best friend Nina was raped by a guy at a party. With Nina’s reputation for being a bit loose, the guy claimed the sex was consensual, and everyone believed him, from the school to the authorities. Cassie is now getting even in the only way she knows how, that is, until she hears that the guy that raped her friend has moved back to the area. Cassie now has a much bigger goal than just scaring guys at bars. It is a fantastic film, and a stark lesson in the “me too” movement. There’s a lot of dialogue in the film that definitely makes you think, and Mulligan’s performance is indeed off the chain. The ending was a little too tidy for my tastes; for a messy film about a messy subject, the conclusion tied things up in too pretty of a bow, but still, this is a strong film with an important message. ★★★★½

  • TV series currently watching: Star Wars The Clone Wars (season 3)
  • Book currently reading: Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks

Quick takes on The Europeans and other Ivory films

I’m continuing to work through some of James Ivory’s films, and next up is Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie’s Pictures, a lesser-known work he and producer Ismail Merchant made for television. In the film, a group of art lovers and collectors descend on an Indian palace in hopes to procure a set of famous miniature paintings. These works of art have been stored away and haven’t been seen in a generation or more, but their reputation has brought a few worldly travelers. Lady Gee curates at a London museum and doesn’t think the environment in India is good for the art. Clark is an American millionaire and he wants the paintings for his own private collection. Lady Gee is a hoot, sniping condescending quips without realizing it, and sharing with the world that the current Maharaja and his sister were nicknamed Georgie and Bonnie by their Scottish governess when they were kids, which was the last time Lady Gee had visited. Bonnie seems to want to sell the paintings and use the cash to escape her corner of the world; the modern woman, who drinks and smokes, wants to free herself. The Maharaja himself doesn’t seem to care what happens to the paintings he inherited. He only has eyes for Lady Gee’s woman traveling companion, but does he have something else going on behind everyone’s backs? With a lot of humor and enough intrigue to keep you engaged, I really enjoyed this one. It’s sad more people have seen it; while I don’t think it is earth shattering or anything, it is a quaint story and beautifully shown with the art and music of India throughout. ★★★½

The Europeans is an adaptation of a Henry James novel. Though I’ve never read this book, I have read 3 other James novels, and knew what to expect. I’m glad I did, because otherwise I might have had a very different opinion of this movie. The film takes place outside Boston, where a well-to-do family, the Wentworths, are visited by some hitherto unknown cousins from Europe, brother and sister Felix and Eugenia. Eugenia is fleeing a failing marriage, and the two seem to have come simply because they have nowhere else to go; they are broke and living off their name alone. The Wentworths however are doing very well, though their austere lifestyle doesn’t give that impression. The oldest daughter in the family, Gertrude, is wanting to get out and see the world, and she is instantly drawn to Felix and his European ideas, though she has been courted by local minister Mr Brand to this point. Eugenia wants a good match too, and bats her eyes at two local suitors: Gertrude’s younger brother Clifford, and Wentworth cousin (from the other side of the family) Robert Acton. The intrigue in the movie is all from the relationships and interactions between these characters and more. It’s a delightful film. If I had not read any James before, I may have been bored, but being prepared for the deliberateness and subtle style, I was enthralled from the beginning. And the period costumes and sets are spot on and beautiful all on their own. It’s a fun film, must-see stuff for people who love old-school period dramas. ★★★★

Talk about turning on a dime. Jane Austen in Manhattan is just awful, with absolutely no redeeming qualities that I could find. The film centers around the auction of a recently found “new” play written by a young Jane Austen (an event based on a true story). The play is purchased by an egotistical theater director. He wants to stage the play in modern avant-garde style, with his cult-like followers (who are abysmal actors). A rival group wants to put on a production in keeping with Austen’s original intent. But the actual plot of these 2 groups going at it against each other is only the backdrop; there’s a ton of side plots and other interactions going on between the multitude of characters, most of which lead nowhere and do nothing but fill up time. Everyone from the directors on down come off as pretentious douchebags. It’s a bizarre, silly movie. You can maybe try 30 minutes of it if you like, but if you expect it to go anywhere after that, don’t hold your breath. ★

Quartet is an English film about a couple living in Paris in 1927. Stephan is a shady art dealer, and his wife Marya adores him. Among the English aristocrats living in Paris, Marya is an enigma; people whisper about her background because she has none. Marya grew up poor but has a refined air that keeps her mysterious. Near the beginning of the film, Stephan is arrested for trading in stolen goods and sent to prison for a year. With no money to support herself, Marya is taken in with the Heidler’s. HJ Heidler and his wife Lois have a spare bedroom in their apartment with an open agreement between them: HJ can let his lady friends stay there, which Lois allows because she doesn’t want HJ to leave her. HJ seduces Marya and she begins an affair with him, at first reluctantly because she has nowhere else to go, but later, whether because of desperation or loneliness, she really starts to crave him. Unfortunately around this time, HJ has started to tire of her. He puts her up in a hotel, where Marya grows suicidal. Lois has also grown tired of the arrangement, and begins sniping public digs at Marya when they are out with friends. What will happen when the unknowing Stephan gets out of prison? There are some nice moments, but on the whole, the film is very average and, unfortunately, forgettable. There are especially fine performances from the two leading ladies, Isabelle Adjani and Maggie Smith, though the film does rely a little too heavily on Adjani’s big beautiful blue doe eyes to draw the viewer in. ★★½

Heat and Dust is a somewhat flawed film, but I still found it very charming and exotic. It returns to Merchant Ivory’s roots in India, about a woman searching for answers there. In the film, two storylines are told concurrently. In the 1920s, Olivia has fled a hospital in India, and is never seen again; the viewer is made to assume she is dead. In flashbacks, we see her prior arrival to the country, following her dignitary husband, and the time leading up to her disappearance. In present day, Olivia’s sister’s granddaughter, Anne, has come to India to research what happened to her great-aunt. In the past, Olivia is fascinated with the country and its people, and in the present, Anne is as well, and the viewer sees a shared trajectory of their lives, all those years apart. Whereas her contemporaries see the locals as uncivilized, Olivia becomes infatuated with a local prince, called the Nawab. Rumors persist that he is funding Indian bandits who’ve been raiding English families, but her in naivety, Olivia brushes aside the rumors and begins an affair with the Nawab. In present day, Anne too begins a love tryst with an Indian man. The answers of what became of Olivia do come in the final moments of the film, to great affect. I wanted to give this movie 4+ stars, and there are plenty of moments that thrilled me, but some plot elements didn’t pan out, or went nowhere at all, so I felt they could have trimmed some fat and made this a much more remarkable picture. Still I really enjoyed it. ★★★½

  • TV series currently watching: Servant (season 1)
  • Book currently reading: The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks

Quick takes on Farewell Amor and other films

The Independents follows a trio of singer/songwriters in their 30’s. All are struggling professionally and in their private lives, and each has considered giving up their love of music to get “real jobs.” Through a random chain of events, they end up together and form a folk rock trio and try to take it on the road, looking for gigs. Things do not go as planned. The movie is loosely based on the group The Sweet Remains, whose members are the actors and it is their music in the picture. And there is a lot of it. Like director John Carney’s films (Once, Begin Again, Sing Street), music dominates this movie, to the point that the plot takes second row. Decent enough music if you are into the folk rock scene, but not enough meat and potatoes for my taste. ★★

Farewell Amor follows a family of immigrants who’ve finally come together after a long time apart. Originally from Angola, Walter fled during the country’s political (and dangerous) upheaval. He came to the USA to make some money, to pave the way for his wife and daughter to follow. Unfortunately 17 years passed before the two of them could join him. The movie begins with Walter finally reconnecting with his family. The film is made up of 3 parts, one from each of the family members. Walter is a good man; while he did find the company of a woman while living alone in the USA all those years, he left her as soon as his wife was able to come. He expects to pick up exactly where they left off, but his wife is changed. Esther has found religion in those intervening years, and is not the same person. Sylvia is a teenager now and barely remembers her dad; he is a stranger to her. Unlike her mom, she is open to American culture and loves to dance, but is restricted by her conservative mother. The film does a great job of showing a story that is probably very common today, and told well. It doesn’t always hit the right notes, but it is a touching story. ★★★½

Paper Lives is a film out of Turkey, following a man named Mehmet, who finds a young homeless boy. Mehmet himself was an orphan, and he runs a recycling business whose workers are made up on men and teens just him, all without parents. It’s a hard job, scrounging the city’s trash daily for items to turn into money, and it is made tougher for Mehmet in particular, as he has failing kidneys, and he’s way down on the donor list. It’s at that dark and dingy warehouse where he finds Ali one night. The young boy was apparently thrown in one of his bins. With bruises all over his arms, legs, and back, it is obvious the boy has been abused. He doesn’t want to return home, nor go to the police. Because of their similar backgrounds, Mehmet takes an instant liking to Ali, and becomes a fatherly figure. It’s a touch movie through most of its length, until the end, where it takes a weird turn. As such, the experience was a bit unsatisfying for me. It’s always a bummer to be let down at the very end. ★★

Long time readers of my blog know that I favor the Marvel films to DC’s, and by a pretty hefty margin. But I was intrigued by Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the newest director’s cut of the disappointing 2017 film. Diehards will know this story, but for those casual movie-goers, here’s how it went down. Zack Snyder directed the first two DC Universe films: Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. Many thought the second film was too dark, so on Justice League, he was given a shorter leash and told to make it more appealing to a younger audience. When some of edits still didn’t do it for the higher-ups at Warner Bros, Joss Whedon (who’s Avengers movies were making money hand over fist) was brought in to make changes. When Snyder had to step away from the film over the sudden death of his daughter by suicide, Whedon finished up, making sweeping changes that changed the entire film. This is what was released in 2017, and it bombed. When I saw it the first time, I thought it was a bit of a mess (though I did enjoy the big climax). Big-time comic fans have been yelling ever since, to see what Snyder’s original vision would have brought. After so much clamoring, Warner finally gave Snyder his chance. They gave him a bag full of cash to shoot some new scenes and finish his “vision.” This time through was a completely different story. I loved this new cut, and I had no problem with the 4 hour runtime. The backstories make sense. The characters are fleshed out. The story isn’t rushed. Yes, it is far darker and gorier; gone is the campiness I thought Whedon’s final film brought. It now has the feeling of a true superhero team-up to prevent the end of the world, a la Avengers, which is what they wanted in the first place. I’m not sure Snyder will ever get a chance to make more DC movies, but I’d love to see what else he can bring if given the chance. ★★★★★

Isabel isn’t a true movie, but it is just a 3 part miniseries (airing on HBO), and with each episode at just an hour, it’s the same length as a long movie. A biopic, it tells the life of Chilean writer Isabel Allende, a name I was familiar with, but didn’t know much about. I went in blind, and was well rewarded. The film begins with Isabel as a young adult and a housewife, with a couple kids at home. She is approached by a friend to become a writer for a start-up women’s magazine which will focus on pertinent modern-day topics. Though Isabel has zero writing experience, she’s creative and a wiz for storytelling, always making up grand narratives for her kids at play. Isabel is an immediate success at work, but that doesn’t protect her when the country falls apart. A military coup happens in Chile in 1973, and in the beginning, Isabel helps smuggle people out of the country. When attention focuses on her though, and she gets threats against her kids if she doesn’t step in line, Isabel is forced to flee Chile for Venezuela, leaving her family behind. In flashbacks to her childhood, we see her feeling abandoned when her father leaves the family for another life.

Episode 2 picks up there: Isabel is alone in a new country, and with the unrest continuing in Chile, she is unable to get in touch with her family to even check in on their well being. When they finally do join her, her marriage to her husband becomes strained. His only work is back in Chile, so he’s away for weeks or months at a time. Isabel falls for another man, and leaves her family to go to Madrid with him, casting aside her family as her father once did. When she is forced to come back for lack of work in Spain, it looks like her relationship with her daughter in particular will never be the same. The episode ends with a burst of inspiration for Isabel in the early 80’s, and she writes her first novel. The final episode takes place mostly a couple years further down the line. Isabel is a successful writer, but her marriage has failed, and the main plot now is the health of her daughter Paula, who is near death. I found the first two episodes better overall, but still, I mostly liked the miniseries. While the show does show some of her faults a bit, it does try to always paint Isabel as a sympathetic figure, and I wasn’t always buying what they were offering. Daniela Ramírez is absolutely fantastic in the lead role; I hope to see her in something else in the future. ★★★½

  • TV series currently watching: Cobra Kai (season 2)
  • Book currently reading: The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks

Quick takes on 2 Fassbinder series

I’ve seen most of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s big film hits (and his early stuff), but he’s also well known for 2 television miniseries: Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day (5 parts, 1972-73) and Berlin Alexanderplatz (14 episodes, released in 1980). Clocking in at 8 hours and a massive 15 hours, respectively, I went in with patience, knowing, from his previous films, that I’d be rewarded.

Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day is basically 5 feature length movies, as each episode runs between 1h30m and 1h45m. In the first episode, we meet our characters. There’s a dinner party going on, with Jochen, his parents, his sister and her family, and Grandma, “Oma.” Jochen runs to get some more champaign and meets Marion; it is love at first sight and he brings her to the party, which Oma loves but everyone else thinks is weird. Jochen is a bright guy who works in a metal-making factory, and in fact, he invents a better way to make the latest order. The episode ends with the strong-willed Oma “bullying” a man to be her boyfriend, and then deciding that they need to get a place together.

Episode two focuses on Oma and her new boyfriend Gregor. They are shopping for a dirt cheap apartment they can afford, and this presents the opportunity for a lot of humor. They also start an illegal kindergarten to give the kids somewhere to go, rather than play in the street. After some fights with the authorities, they do finally get approval on their kindergarten, which gives them a small salary, enough to finally get a place together. The third episode goes back to Jochen, this time looking more at his workplace. His friend Franz wants to become the new foreman, but he doesn’t have the math skills to calculate the parts correctly. Jochen, feeling powerful after the success at resolving the work issue in the first episode, gets his coworkers to put pressure on the foreman who was hired from outside the company, hoping Franz can still get that job. There’s a funny side story involving Oma again, who thinks her son-in-law (Jochen’s father) is too despondent since she moved out and he lost his “arguing partner.” She takes out an ad for a quarrelsome grandmother who can live with her son-in-law, to take her place.

The fourth episode features the start of a new marriage, and the collapse of another. Marion’s long-roaming mother comes home, and while she initially doesn’t like Jochen, he grows on her. Though everyone initially thinks it is a mistake, Jochen and Marion get married. At the same time, Jochen’s sister Monika has decided to divorce her abusive husband Harald. He resists, not because he still cares for her, but because he’s spiteful. The episode ends with a large party to celebrate Jochen’s and Marion’s marriage, where all of their family, friends, and coworkers all come together for the first time in the series. At the party, Aunt Kathe and Oma are able to convince Harald to agree to the divorce. A lot goes on in the final episode. Jochen’s bosses want to move their plant across town, and all the workers fight it. Marian’s coworker and one of Jochen’s coworkers, who met at their wedding party, get serious. Jochen’s best friend falls for Monika, but she seems taken with someone else. Can everything get wrapped up in the final 90 minutes?

I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of this series. So very funny, endearing, and maybe best of all, the feeling of a human connection is palpable. After so many hours with our characters, I felt like a member of the family. By the end, I was invested in their outcomes, and wanted the best for all of them. Even the ones who weren’t necessarily good people (Monika’s husband Harald) were shown as flawed humans, but not irredeemable. It’s a wonderful miniseries: no “action,” no outlandish plot elements, just real people living their lives, seeking happiness at home and at work. ★★★★

The previous series was released in 1972-73. Fassbinder had had a minor local hit in with The Merchant of Four Seasons, but he was still building a fandom. By the time Berlin Alexanderplatz aired in 1980, he was a star, with a couple internationally acclaimed films under his belt. Starting in 1928, this series follows Franz Biberkopf, a man newly released after serving 4 years in prison for killing his girlfriend. This series is longer, but easier to watch in short spurts; except for the first and last (epilogue) episodes, each of the rest was only an hour long.

The first couple episodes show him getting his bearings in a world that has changed quickly. Franz initially struggles for a secure foundation, trying to go clean after vowing to himself that he will not risk going to jail again. He has a quick affair with his dead girlfriend’s sister, something that seemed to be going on from before his arrest, but eventually settles for a Polish girl named Lina. After a couple jobs don’t pan out, he lands a job through Lina’s uncle Otto, selling shoelaces door-to-door. This leads to his downfall though: the first door he knocks on belongs to a widow who thinks Franz looks just like her departed husband. She lets herself be seduced, and when Otto hears of it, he goes after her too, expecting the same treatment. When he doesn’t get it, Otto roughs her up and robs her. This setback spirals Franz into depression. He leaves Lina, and goes and rents a single room in a flat. Franz drinks all day and night, is delirious half the time, and only slowly is brought back to life through the help of a kindly man who refuses to give up on Franz.

Those first couple episodes were a bit tough to get through for me. I couldn’t connect with Franz at first, but in the fourth episode, with his crash and resurrection, the show started to hit its stride. At the beginning of the fifth episode, Franz has returned to his friends and is ready to find life again.

The fifth episode introduces Reinhold; Franz and he hit it off and become fast friends. Reinhold can only stay in a relationship for a couple months and then is ready to cast off the girl for a new one. Franz is willing to take Reinhold’s leftovers. This provides a humorous (if sexist) diversion for an episode, before the drama returns. A man named Pums is running some kind of illegal operation in the area, employing many of Franz’s friends, including his long-time best friend, Meck, and Reinhold. Franz resists joining, keeping to his vow made to himself in the beginning. He inadvertently ends up on an illicit mission one night, and Reinhold (literally) casts him aside, pushing Franz out of a moving vehicle. Franz is hit by another car, and ends up having his arm amputated. Franz recupes with a woman who once carried a flame for him named Eva, even as Pums, Reinhold, and that crew decide what to do about him, since he knows a bit about their business now.

At the start of the eighth episode, Franz has decided that going straight has not worked out for him, and despite warnings from his friendly bartender Max, Franz starts working with Willy, a local crook. Franz does seem to finally find love though, when Eva introduces him to Mieze, and the two fall for each other quickly. However, it turns out Meize is just like Eva and Ida, and is a prostitute. Franz becomes her defacto pimp, just as he was for Ida before he killed her, and it seems his life has come full circle. Will things turn out the same as they did for Franz and Ida? It looks like they may, as Franz becomes jealous of a rich man Meize starts seeing at the end of the tenth episode.

The eleventh episode heralds that the end is nigh. Franz wants back in Pums’ gang, but Reinhold thinks that Franz has ulterior motives, namely, retaliation against himself. Franz is nothing but friendly with Reinhold though, inviting him over to his apartment. While there, Franz has a blowout fight with Meize, when she tells him she’s fallen in love with another man. Franz savagely beats her, and would have killed her just as he did Ida if Reinhold weren’t there to stop it. Like most abused women, Meize takes Franz back, and the episode ends with them frolicking in the woods.

The final 2 episodes and epilogue, I’ll leave to you to watch if you are interested. Reinhold will obviously play a bit part before the end, as well as Meck and Eva, the girl that has known Franz the longest. The final film-length epilogue has Franz wandering in a Fellini-esque dreamlike state through heaven and his own mind, even as his physical body recoups in a hospital. It’s a great series, about man’s struggle against the forces of fate, friendship, human’s fallacies, and even himself. The cinematography and “feel” of the series is better than Eight Hours; you can definitely see how Fassbinder has developed in those intervening years. I think Eight Hours is maybe more enjoyable from a pure story standpoint, but Berlin Alexanderplatz is the better overall project, with so many intertwining threads and characters that weave in and out over the course of its 15 hours. In Berlin, the story is secondary to the life and soul of Franz Biberkopf. It’s a true masterpiece. ★★★★★

  • TV series currently watching: The Boys (season 1)
  • Book currently reading: The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks

Quick takes on Crazy About Her and other films

Honey Bee is a small indie film out of Canada, about a young girl, Natalie, who gets woo’ed by a hot guy into a relationship, only for him to pimp her out at truck stops. She is completely fooled by his promises of a better future, and when she’s arrested in a sting operation, Natalie refuses to give Paul up. She ends up in a foster home, her fourth, and she has no expectations for anything good, after having been abused at her previous 3 foster homes. Fortunately, she’s finally found a good one, though obviously it takes her some time, and she has to make some freshly costly mistakes, before she comes to realize it herself. It’s a similar story that you’ve seen a million times, and this movie doesn’t break any new ground, but it is told well enough for what it is. Youngster Julia Sarah Stone shows promise in the lead role, it’d be interesting to see if she can build off this in her career. ★★½

Adrienne (Sienna Miller) and Matteo (Diego Luna) have been in a relationship a long time and have just had a baby together, but their relationship is on the rocks. She wants to get married, he doesn’t; she thinks he’s cheating on her, he loathes her parents, and these and more reasons are causing a lot of strife. After an awkward party where their in-fighting bubbles up in front of their friends, they get in a bad car wreck on the way home. Adrienne “awakes” in the hospital next to her own dead body, and witnesses a series of scenes such as her parents grieving in the morgue, Matteo speaking at her funeral, etc. Then Adrienne starts reliving some of her memories, and Matteo is along for the ride, however, he is trying throughout to convince her that she is not really dead. They share many memories of their life together, and it is a blend of reliving those moments, as well as talking to each other about the memory while they are living it. Example: they are at a rooftop party where they first met, and then in the middle of the conversation, she’ll say something like, “I fell for you right away.” So they are reliving those moments from a modern day perspective, not much different how we remember things when we look back. Throughout it all though, Adrienne is stalked by a dark figure who, at first, Matteo can’t see. Is she dead or alive, as Matteo contends, and who is the dark figure lurking in the shadows? We get the answers in the end, but this is one of those films where the ride is a lot better than the conclusion. I loved Wander Darkly through most of the film, and Miller and Luna are equally fantastic, but the ending felt shallow and lost a lot of the magic that was going on during the movie. I was in that 4-5 star territory until the last 15 minutes. ★★★

The Last Vermeer is based on the true story of Dutch painter Han van Meegeren. The movie begins at the end of World War II in Europe, where allies have just found a trove of paintings and wealth, supposedly stolen by the Nazis from the Jews. Captain Joseph Piller has been tasked with ferreting out the German soldiers who did the stealing and turning them over for sentencing. In the latest finding is a painting by 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. Piller starts digging to find who owned the painting before the war, and traces its last owner to van Meegeren, who sold it for an ungodly sum to a German higher-up. Pillar begins to think that, in addition to stealing paintings from Jews, money was being funneled through the art transactions to fund the nazi war effort. He detains van Meegeren, who claims his innocence, and it isn’t until later, in prepping for his trial, that is it discovered that van Meegeren is a forger. He faked the Vermeer painting, as well as many others. The film shows a fascinating piece of history, and has fine acting from Claus Bang (Pillar) and the always enjoyable Guy Pearce (van Meegeren), but it suffers in the courtroom finale from a rather poor deus ex machina. It also paints (hardy har har) van Meegeren as a saint, ripping the nazis out of millions to thumb his nose at the critics who called his work (pre-forgeries) as talentless, but let’s not forget, he made a ton of money, which afforded him an awfully posh lifestyle at a time when many were suffering. ★★½

Going to finish up with a couple foreign language films recently released on Netflix. Classmates Minus (from Hong Kong) is getting decent reviews, but it’s just not my cup of tea. It’s about 4 men in their 40’s whose professional and personal lives haven’t gone according to plan. One is a director, but he’s stuck doing crappy commercials (and he doesn’t know his trade well enough to do even that). Another works at a mundane office, with no chance of advancement. The third is an overweight man doing registration checks in bad neighborhoods for the government. The last is a life-long stutterer who oversees a dying business left to him by his deceased father. Supposedly a dark comedy, I didn’t laugh once in the first hour. Didn’t chuckle. Didn’t enough crack a grin. It comes off as overly silly with a weird voiceover narration, and I could not get into it. I gave up after that first hour and went on to the next film. ★

Crazy About Her moves to Spain. It’s a romantic comedy following primarily a man named Adri. He’s out at a bar with a couple friends when he is picked up by Carla, a wild girl who introduces herself and then asks Adri for a single of night of sex with no strings attached. They have a wild night for sure, crashing a wedding, “borrowing” the honeymoon suite, and then she’s gone. Adri, who has avoided longterm relationships his whole life, is suddenly smitten. His friends tease him, but he tracks Carla down. Unfortunately she’s in a private mental health facility, so Adri has to “break in.” With a doctor’s help, Adri is able to get admitted, only to find that Carla really only wanted that single night and doesn’t return his feelings. Adri finds that getting in was a lot easier than getting out. But something amazing happens: he starts helping the others inside move past barriers that were holding them back. He also gets to know Carla better. Suffering from bipolar disorder, she’s always pushed people away, knowing that anyone close to her would have a hard time dealing with her wild emotions. The movie is a bit silly at times, but it doesn’t make fun of people with mental illness and, in fact, uplifts them. It acknowledges some people can’t be “fixed” but that doesn’t mean they can’t be happy. Good date film if you are up for some subtitles. ★★★½

  • TV series currently watching: Gotham (season 1)
  • Book currently reading: Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

Quick takes on Black Bear and other films

Watch List is a film out of the Philippines. This one’s been on my radar for awhile but finding somewhere to see it has been a chore. I’m glad I finally found it, because lead actress Alessandra de Rossi is a revelation. Maria and her husband are former drug users but have been clean for many years, and are raising their three kids in a poorer district. Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte’s infamous war on drugs has been rounding up anyone with a drug history and putting them through “rehabilitation” programs, so the couple is picked up, despite being sober for so long. Duterte has also endorsed vigilante justice against drug users, and this ends up in the killing of Maria’s husband. With no money coming in and unable to find a job because of her drug history, Maria resorts to going to the people who probably killed her husband. To protect her children, she becomes an informer for the vigilantes, and is even trained to kill with them on future missions. Some of these missions however go after people like herself, who’ve been off drugs for awhile and have families. Beset by guilt but faced with no other options, Maria has to decide what is best for her kids. While the film doesn’t break any new ground, de Rossi is absolutely incredible. I hope people see this one and, if she desires it, it leads to bigger opportunities. ★★★½

Watch List had a tour-de-force performance which was wholly unexpected, but I fully anticipated it from Aubrey Plaza in Black Bear. Seriously this woman needs more recognition for her work. The premise of this film isn’t too new, at first anyway. Allison is a former actress turned writer/director, who’s rented a cabin by a lake to do some solitary writing for her next film. She stumbles upon a couple in crisis though; the cabin’s owners Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon) are expecting a child and seem to only be staying together for that reason. The three share a dinner the first night, and initially the couple just bicker at each other, which is uncomfortable for Allison as anyone who’s been in that situation can attest. As the night goes on though, the sniping turns into a full out argument, as Blair senses sexual chemistry between Gabe and Allison. It does not get better after Blair goes to bed, as Gabe admits to Allison that he doesn’t love his girlfriend anymore. They start fooling around, and Blair walks in, leading to a climactic event at the conclusion of the first half of the film. I cannot say anything about the second half, because to do so would ruin a great surprise, but suffice to say it flips the film on its head, and gets even better from there. Plaza is amazing as she is in everything she does, and the movie is wonderfully written and precisely put together. The best film that no one seems to be talking about it. ★★★★★

Fagara hails from Hong Kong, and is about a woman who’s just lost her father to a sudden death. Preparing for his funeral, Acacia learns that her father, from whom she’s been estranged for several years, had two other others from other women, one in Taiwan and the other in China. Their shared father came to live with Acacia’s mother when she became ill, but would occasionally leave to visit Branch and her mother (supposedly his first love), though he didn’t often see his third daughter, Cherry, in China. This unlikely trio has to get to know each other, while groping with complicated emotions over their father, and also strained relationships with others in their individual families. The film centers around Acacia trying to run her dad’s restaurant, as he has a lease for one more year, which would be expensive to break. The movie struggles with uncertain footing a lot of the time; there’s a lot going on, and some of the moments don’t feel natural. However, the cinematography is absolutely stunning. This is visually one of the most beautiful films you’ll see. It’s an average film with above average looks. ★★★

Around the sun is a sci-fi film, yet it isn’t. It can be called a romantic drama, but there’s hardly any physical contact between the two main (and only) characters, who are strangers when they meet in the beginning. This is a film that defies genres, and I loved it. Bernard is visiting a large chateau in France, and is being shown the place by Maggie, who works for a firm who owns the estate. At first, Bernard is a scout for a film company who wants to shoot a picture on this location, but it quickly becomes clear that this is only one possible scenario that brought Bernard here today. As the film plays out and Maggie and Bernard explore the estate, their backgrounds and circumstances change. In one scene, Maggie will ask Bernard if he’s seen any stars (meaning movie stars), and he jokes about it. In another, she’ll ask the same question, and Bernard immediately talks about his knowledge of constellations. So while there are multi-verses in play and we see glimpses of many of them throughout the movie, there is no real science fiction on camera. What the film becomes is a look at humanity and where it is today, through the conversations between our two characters over the course of a single day in a multitude of universes. Conversations touch on science, philosophy, art, and many other topics. They are the kinds of deep conversations that are too often missing from film (and our busy social culture) today. The chemistry between our two leads is palpable, despite (in some worlds) Bernard has a baby on the way from his (maybe estranged?) girlfriend. The movie gave me a strong Last Year at Marienbad vibe, both because of the lingering questions (Maggie mentions more than once a strong feeling of deja vu) and because of the empty building they are exploring. It’s an intimate, thought-provoking film, one that pulls you in to the lives of our characters. ★★★★

Savage is about a man, Danny, who’s grown up inside a street gang in New Zealand. Based on a true story, it starts in 1989 when Danny is an adult, but much of the film is told at two other key points of his life too: when he is a child in 1965, and later, as a teenager. As a kid, he lives in an abusive household, sometimes going so far as to provoke his father so his siblings are left alone. He is later caught stealing, and his father kicks him out of the house and sends him to a state school. He’s still there years later as a teenager, and his best friend is Moses, who is not a good influence. When Moses takes charge in a street gang called the Savages, Danny of course joins too, even viciously beating his brother, who’s in a rival gang. Back to present day, Danny is finally dealing with guilt for all the bad he’s done all these years, and he very much wants to see his mother and siblings again, though his brother (now long out of the gang life and raising a family) still holds a grudge. Danny needs to decide between loyalty to Moses, or his desire to get out of the lifestyle. The film is decent enough in spots, but unfortunately I found it hard to feel sorry for an adult who should know better. Being rough and getting in fights as a teenager is one thing, doing it as an adult is far different. I don’t have much pity for stupidity. ★★½

  • TV series currently watching: WandaVision, Maniac (miniseries)
  • Book currently reading: The Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King

Quick takes on I Care a Lot and other films

Eternal Beauty has been on my watch list since it first premiered at a film festival in 2019, but I’ve just recently had a chance to see it. It stars the incomparable Sally Hawkins (how does she not have more awards in her closet?!) as Jane, a woman struggling with schizophrenia. Her particular hallucinations come in the form of whispers from inside the walls, voices from the radio telling her to do things, and she hears her apartment phone ring constantly, with a man on the other end telling her he loves her and always will. We learn as the film goes along that she is not the only one in her family suffering from mental illness, but she’s definitely been the person who has taken the fall. Several key events are happening at this particular point in Jane’s life: her domineering mother is dying, her older sister’s husband is having an affair, and her younger sister’s life is falling apart. With all this going on, Jane meets someone. Mike (David Thewlis) is also schizophrenic, and it is obvious to everyone that they aren’t very good for each other, obvious to everyone except Jane and Mike. The film is sort of a dark comedy drama, but I was uncomfortable laughing at some of the humor, because much of it poked fun at Jane’s illness, through her behaviors. Other times, her sickness was most definitely not funny, and took on an almost scary theme. As the film progresses, we learn more about Jane and how her life has taken her to this point. It’s a very good picture, and I was reminded a lot of Hawkins’ previous film Maudie. Like that one, this movie is very good but not necessarily great, but her performance is definitely worth the price of admission. I firmly believe she is one of those transcendent kind of actors that makes everything she’s in better. 3 stars for the film, 5 for her performance, balances out to ★★★★

Judas and the Black Messiah is a gripping movie, based on the lives of Bill O’Neal and Fred Hampton in the late 1960s. Bill (Lakeith Stanfield) is a two-bit hood who’s latest scam is pretending to be a cop in order to steal cars. He is caught red-handed, but rather than send him to jail, he is recruited by FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) to infiltrate the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers. Their ultimate goal is to get close to Panthers leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), who is seen by J Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) as a real problem. Fred is a captivating speaker who articulates the anger black people are feeling over the recent murders of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Bill ingratiates himself quickly, and it isn’t long before he is running security for Fred. Bill seems moved by the things Fred says, but stays the course with the FBI for his promised riches and rewards when the job is done. Unfortunately Hoover isn’t looking for an arrest; he wants to put a final end to Fred’s calls for revolution. It is a captivating movie, and while I certainly don’t condone Fred’s calls for violence against the police, the film does a great job of explaining the anger behind his words. Stanfield is fantastic as a conflicted Bill, but Kaluuya’s Fred Hampton steals the show. Anytime he is in the scene, the camera is his to command, and his presence is felt through the screen. Tremendous performances, showing a damning moment of authoritative violence in our country. ★★★★

The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is (yet another) story about someone stuck inside the same day, Groundhog Day style. This time it is wrapped in a teen drama and, like Palm Springs last year, features two people reliving the same day over and over instead of one. When the movie starts, Mark has already lived the same day a 1000 times or more, and knows everything that will happen down cold. He does good things for the passersby on the streets, but his latest goal is to get a kiss from a cute girl he saves from getting beaned by a beach ball at the pool, but no matter what he tries, it never works. One day, before Mark can step in front of the rogue ball, a new girl steps in front and deflects it, before walking to her car and driving away. Knowing she isn’t part of the loop, Mark hunts her down, and lo and behind, finds that Margaret has been living the same day over and over too. They decide that maybe they’ll be able to get out if they map out all of the magical moments that happen around town, things like an eagle catching a fish clean out of a lake, a janitor who sits at a piano when he thinks no one is around and plays beautifully, and kids who find joy in lighting up their new tree house. Mark has long ago accepted that he may never get past this day, and almost enjoys it, but Margaret seems to struggle, for a reason that becomes known in the latter part of the movie. It’s a cute film, maybe a little too cute for my taste. It’s not as good as either of the previously mentioned movies with this premise, and while there are some laughs, it isn’t as funny or as endearing as those. However, worthy of a single viewing. ★★★

I Care a Lot is ridiculous, implausible, but damn it’s a good time, with an all-star cast showing off their talents. Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike) is a predator of the elderly. She’s in league with an unsavory doctor who tips her off to old people who are showing dementia, and then Marla gets the courts to grant her guardianship. With these powers, she puts the old folks in a home, auctions off their house and goods, and pays herself out of all the money coming in. Things are going well until she gets the wrong lady under her care. Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest) has nothing wrong with her, but Marla is still able to fool the courts and gets Jennifer under her care. Jennifer was supposed to be a “cherry,” with no living family on record to fight Marla, and thus when Jennifer eventually died, all her finances would go to her guardian. Unfortunately, Jennifer has a hidden past, and a son that very much wants to ruin Marla’s day. The unnamed son (Peter Dinklage) has a ton of money, a few thugs, and a very good, dirty lawyer who all try to intimidate Marla, but she’s having none of it. She knows there’s more to Jennifer than there seems, and wants much more money than she’s being offered to walk away. I enjoyed this movie much more than I was expecting. There aren’t any good guys here, it is just bad guys vs bad guys, and no one to root for, but they are all deliciously bad. That, I think, is the crux of the bad reviews online, no “good guy” to get behind. The finale stretches believability quite a bit, but the film is a blast. It is blacker-than-black comedy teamed up with wild thrills. ★★★★½

I’ve been hearing amazing things about Nomadland for quite awhile, and I won’t say I was disappointed, but, for my tastes, it wasn’t the end-all-be-all film I was expecting. Frances McDormand plays Fern, an older woman who’s recently lost everything. She and her husband worked for the same company in rural Nevada for years, but the company closed up (pretty much eliminating the town that depended on it), and then Fern’s husband died. Fern’s lost her house and is now living out of a van, taking on a nomad lifestyle. She moves place to place and takes work where she can get it, such as seasonal packaging at an Amazon distribution center, cleaning at an RV park, or the occasional restaurant job. The film is about Fern’s grieving process for her husband and former life, but it also plays out as a quasi-documentary, with Fern meeting and talking with others in similar situations. There are a few young Bohemians, but for the most part, it is an elderly crowd who, like Fern, have lost houses or in some cases, willingly chose the nomad life to see the country before they die. It did not surprise me to learn that many of the people in the picture were fictionalized versions of themselves, real-life nomads out on the road. We learn about the risk, perils, and rewards for this kind of living. This is probably why it did not grab me; I’m generally not a big documentary person. This film is heavy on facts and light on story, and while McDormand is excellent (as always), it’s just not my cup of tea. ★★★½

  • TV series currently watching: WandaVision, Fargo (season 4)
  • Book currently reading: Dune by Frank Herbert

1500 movies blogged

Early last month, I crossed 1500 movies blogged here. I’ve been wanting to write a quick note about it, but kept forgetting.

My wife teases me (playfully I hope?) that I watch too much tv. Between all these movies, many tv/streaming shows that I don’t even blog about, and every Cardinals/Blues game (born and raised St Louis!) I do have a screen in front of me a lot. Part of it is a big case of FOMO; I just can’t not watch something that I may end up liking. This seems to have gotten worse the last couple years. According to my Letterboxed, in the last 4 years, my movie totals have gone from 182, to 214, to 387, to 401 last year. Granted, some of those were re-watches that I didn’t blog about, but that’s still a lot of movies to watch.

Right now, I’m on pace for 450 films in 2021. I don’t think I’ll get that many, but I’m fairly sure I’ll hit 400 again. As the number of films climbs, finding something in particular I’ve written about has become a challenge. So here’s a couple ways to search for something I’ve seen since I started my blog in 2014 : 

  • The search bar (on the right if you are on a computer, at the bottom on mobile)
  • My Letterboxd (no reviews there, just my activity and ratings)
  • My updated google spreadsheet (sortable)

If anyone else has better ideas on how to search for particular movies/history, let me know! And thanks for reading.