Writing for RogerEbert.com: Vol. 6

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Shane Curry and Kelly O’Neill on the set of Lance Daly’s “Kisses.” Courtesy of Lance Daly.

On an icy night in December of last year, Julie Andrews arrived at the Chicago Theatre 14 years after her production of “The Boy Friend” graced the venue’s stage. She shared a wealth of priceless stories with the awe-struck audience, who basked in the warmth of her indelible presence. For my entire life, I’ve deemed Julie a light on this earth in every sense of the word, and as evidenced by her two extraordinary, rigorously unsentimental memoirs, the light that she radiates was hard-earned. There is nothing counterfeit about the optimism she exudes, nor the potential she seeks to find even within her struggles. When a disastrous surgery ended her singing career, it was her daughter and frequent collaborator, Emma Walton Hamilton, who encouraged her growing interest in writing, observing that she had found a new way to use her voice. Therapy saved her life, and I can honestly say that it saved mine as well.

At intermission, Julie’s face filled a screen used periodically during the conversation for montages of her life and career (the most touching of them was set to “Moon River” and featured candid photos of her with her late husband, Blake Edwards). As I looked into her eyes, I could almost hear her saying her signature line, which is engraved on a plaque in her house, “Aren’t we lucky?” Though I certainly did feel overwhelmed with gratitude in that moment, I had no idea just how lucky I would be three months later, when I was granted the opportunity to interview Julie and Emma for RogerEbert.com. Having the opportunity to speak with them not only about their books but their wonderful Netflix series, “Julie’s Greenroom,” produced by the Jim Henson Company, was one of the greatest honors of my life.

I had originally intended on publishing the article around the time of Andrews’ AFI Life Achievement Award ceremony, which was scheduled in late April, but when it was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I decided instead to have the interview posted on the week that the pair’s new podcast, “Julie’s Library” premiered. In order to provide families with comfort and nourishing escapism during these uncertain days, Julie and Emma worked tirelessly to have their program released several weeks earlier than they had initially planned, and it has been a profound gift for listeners of all ages. My favorite episode thus far showcases Kai Cheng Thom’s From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea, a children’s book about a nonbinary child of color, which was read so beautifully by Julie that it moved me to tears.

Gratitude is a word I’ve found myself using more in the last few months than anytime prior to the quarantine that began in March. Going into my seventh year at RogerEbert.com, I am eternally thankful for every opportunity provided by my boss Chaz Ebert and our invaluable team of editors to do what I love while traveling the world and meeting so many amazing people. In the first part of this retrospective post, I’ve compiled excepts from each interview I’ve conducted over the past twelve months with extraordinary artists, many of whom are responsible for some of finest films I’ve seen—“The Empire Strikes Back,” “The Muppet Christmas Carol” and Lance Daly’s sublime Irish gem “Kisses,” to name a few. Click on the bolded name of each interview subject, and you will be directed to the full conversation…

“Jim Henson was an adorable man. I remember him being very tall and looking sort of like if Lincoln had dressed in a western costume of some kind. He had a very special hat and very special clothes, but not to make a statement, just because that was the way he was. He was lovely and gravely funny—so grave and then the humor would come out of him. I was doing a television special, and we invited the Muppet performers on before they really burst onto the waking world. I noticed that between setups, they’d still be performing different characters. If they were working behind some kind of a wall or shelf where you couldn’t see them, you’d see their hands on the edge of the proscenium. Two sets of fingers would meet and talk to each other, and then one would knock the other one off. Even then, you knew that they were going to be huge.”—Julie Andrews, star of “Julie’s Greenroom”

“I remember being a kid on the set when mom was doing her ‘Julie on Sesame Street’ special with the Muppets. I have a photograph, which I love, of mom and Perry Como with the guests. We were all doing a still photo for posterity, just sitting on the steps of one of those ‘Sesame Street’ brownstones, and in the photograph, all you can see are us and the Muppets. What I remember so clearly are all the puppeteers who were beneath the Muppets, whose bodies were sprawled across the brownstone set, but just out of camera view, creating this illusion.”—Emma Walton Hamilton, co-host of “Julie’s Library”

“When I think back to it, the value of the whole experience, and of the show itself, was that it was fun. Both as someone who was part of the production, but also somebody who watched it at home, the show was fun to watch, and that made learning fun. It was colorful and dynamic, and when I was thinking about making my first film, I knew that it was my responsibility to hook viewers into the story and to make them feel something about it. ‘Sesame Street’ and Ken Burns really informed who I am as a filmmaker and how I see the world, and that’s not a bad thing. […] I’m more of an Ernie type, as evidenced by my laugh, and I pretty much married Bert. [laughs] So that relationship is a strong one.”—Shola Lynch, star of “Sesame Street”

“My approach to cutting character sequences is no different, whether the character is played by an actor or an actor through a puppet, and Frank Oz invested the puppet with a great personality through his voice and his movement. There were four people operating Yoda—one guy was doing the ears, another guy was doing the forehead—and they all had different controls. Frank had his hand up inside the puppet, while operating from under the floor. They had a floor built up so that Frank could get underneath and reach up while watching himself on a video camera to see what he was doing. It’s an elaborate technical feat, but what brings the character to life is the coordination of the puppeteers and the voice. ‘Animation’ is based on the latin word for soul. When you animate something, it brings its soul to life.”—Paul Hirsch, editor of “The Empire Strikes Back”

“It certainly was therapeutic to me, and it led me to therapy when I was about 40. It was a very healing place to work because it enabled you to work out your own feelings. All artists speak for us, and that applies to any kind of art, whether it’s dance or painting, anything. These people are out there saying things that they are compelled to say, working out their own issues through their own material. We all have issues that are universal, so when we recognize—even unconsciously—our own issues being expressed by an artist, we find ourselves a little purged, a little relieved that our issue has gotten out there, and a lot of times, we’re not even aware of it. I think that’s what’s going on. It’s certainly what was going on for me when I was doing the work. It was allowing me the chance to express my issues, and I think that resonates with the audience in our case because there is an underpinning of philosophy in our work. People respond to it often without knowing why.”—Dave Goelz (a.k.a. Gonzo), star of “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance”

“Diahann Carroll was obviously very, very beautiful, so the studio and the producers were worried that she was too beautiful to play this kind of witch character in ‘Eve’s Bayou.’ I came up with the idea to cover Diahann in Yoruba face paint so that her beauty would be concealed, and she embraced it. By the time she came out of the makeup trailer, she had added that black ash dot in the middle of her forehead. One time after we shot a take, I said, ‘God, that was great. How did you feel?’, and she said, ‘It’s so elusive, isn’t it?’ It’s such a true statement about art—it’s so elusive.”—Kasi Lemmons, director of “Eve’s Bayou”

“I went from being hyper-aware of the camera to trying to abrogate from the process any awareness of it and just exist. I let it be where it was going to be and do what it was going to do rather than watch my work and understand that I wasn’t exploiting the rhetoric of the process of filmmaking, because it is a rhetoric. Storytelling is rhetoric, and so, of course when the camera is closer, if you are going to—it is a weird word to use—exploit the language of a movie, it’s going to allow for a different type of performance. I realized that ignoring the camera doesn’t really work. Then I went into a phase of awareness regarding the camera, and when I looked at my performances, they occasionally would be suffused with a kind of self-regard that I didn’t like, so I started pulling back from that. Lately, I’ve come to the realization that it is project to project, and it really does depend on the nature of what the story is and how it’s being told.”—Tim Blake Nelson, star of “Just Mercy”

“Jen said from the beginning that she wanted to shoot ‘The Nightingale’ in the Academy ratio [1.37:1]. She felt that it was brilliant for faces. Her idea was that she wanted to still capture the beauty of the environment without reducing us to little dots. This film is about the human side of pain and violence, so it is really important that the characters are right up close with the audience, not just with the beautiful scenes where Clare and Billy are finally looking at each other, but also in the horrific scenes of sexual violence. The camera is right up there in our faces, because we don’t want viewers to get away from the emotional side of it. It’s not a physical thing that we want you to see, we want you to see the emotional pain. I loved the fact that we were using so many close-ups because it helped the performers in letting go.”—Aisling Franciosi, star of “The Nightingale”

“I remember seeing the great behind-the-scenes documentary of ‘The Shining’ that was shot by Kubrick’s daughter, Vivian. You think of Kubrick in the same ways that I think of P.T. Anderson, which is that he has everything figured out, and there were no decisions that didn’t get made long in advance. He’s supposedly been thinking about them forever. Then you see Kubrick with a finder in his hand, searching for the iconic shot underneath Jack Nicholson as he’s banging on the door, and you think, ‘Oh wait, he just found that.’ You see him try it high, you see him try it another way, and then he finally gets underneath, and he’s like, ‘Okay, let’s put the camera here.’ Those kind of realizations are so essential when you are a young filmmaker, so that you are not suddenly feeling like you have to be a genius right now. Genius is never something that you attain, but you can seek after those moments, while knowing that you’re going to have struggles even when you are a 70-year-old filmmaker trying to figure out what to do next.”—Lawrence Sher, cinematographer of “Joker”

“When this pandemic started happening, I was doing a lot of research online, because I realized that I had never really lived to see a virus like this. I started researching the Spanish flu and I read a lot about how Hollywood boomed after the pandemic had ended. It makes so much sense because when things like this happen, people run to entertainment like music, films and TV to feel safe, to feel heard, to feel understood and be seen—and also just to be comforted. I began thinking that maybe this is the second wave that Hollywood will see after a big flu and things will just flourish afterward. I don’t know how they will flourish, but I have a lot of faith that from this hardship, a lot of beautiful stories will be born. This is a time for self-reflection where we can tap into our inner voice that isn’t normally heard. I’ve just been sitting here in my thoughts and healing wounds that I didn’t even know were still open, so I can’t even imagine what writers are going through right now. I’m sure they have a pen and paper in hand just going at it.”—Otmara Marrero, star of “Clementine”

“Movies are great, but they’re not worth risking your health or your safety. My employees are my family and I love my customers. As bad as I would want to be open, I wasn’t going to do it unless I was 100 percent sure that everyone was going to be safe. I have family working there too, and I wouldn’t put them at the frontlines of something that would be bad for them. Right now, we’re not able to sell at capacity, and that’s okay. I put all the precautionary measures in place as directed by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, and I also added a few more directives that are admittedly a little overkill in some areas. But when it comes to combating this virus, erring on the side of caution is not a bad thing to do.”—Scott Dehn, owner of the McHenry Outdoor Theater

“At its core, the movie was always about the connectivity between all of us even when we are not together as human beings or in the case of these characters. It was my hope to visually convey that sense of connection. Just because a certain character does not go to see another character at the end of the movie, which is what you might expect in this kind of dynamic, doesn’t mean that a big internal shift toward forgiveness isn’t happening within that person. Just because they aren’t together doesn’t mean they aren’t close. That sort of spiritual connectivity and transference was really, really cool to me. I had always thought that if this character needs to go see that other character at the end of the movie, then we had failed. There is something more powerful in feeling it without having to go physically there. Feeling this connection between all of us in our separate moments affirms how much we need each other.”—Trey Edward Shults, director of “Waves”

“There’s a scene where Blake has to rescue Schofield, and it was really hard for me because it was very physical, and like I said before, the weapons were really restricting. Also, Roger Deakins wanted to use natural light, and the only light source in that scene was Blake’s torch. So not only was I doing the movements at the correct pace, I had to light the set as well. We had to do that scene so many times because it was really, really tough. After a while, Sam pulled me aside and said, “Your f—king friend is gonna die if you don’t f—king save him. Your friend is under there and he can die. Save your f—king mate!” Sometimes when you do a scene repetitively, you’re just thinking more about what you’ve done before and you sort of forget what your character is going through. But when Sam gave me that note, it shook me up and like that [snaps fingers], it got me right back where I needed to be.”—Dean-Charles Chapman, star of “1917”

“Just because we can’t afford a composer doesn’t mean we can’t use the greatest composers of all time. Though The Folkloristas scored the pre-Columbian music and the period-specific folk music, I wanted a bittersweet theme that would be representative of the United States. ‘Adagio for Strings’ had all the emotions that I was looking for. It conveys what is beautiful and horrible, tragic and elegiac about the United States. I wanted to bring it in just twice—first when Rosa and Enrique are being uprooted and decide to go to the North together with the hope of finding a better life. It was very important to me to show that these siblings do not want to leave their land. People don’t want to leave their homes. They do it because they have to.”—Gregory Nava, director of “El Norte”

“For so many black musicians or black artists, there’s this tradition of going overseas to places like Paris and falling in love with not only the city but the way that black people were treated there. It was just different enough that it meant so much to the artists. One of the great things about Miles’ story is how so many things fell into place. What he and Juliette had together was a real love story. He goes to Paris, falls in love, comes back, gets depressed, spirals down into heroin addiction, kicks the habit and gets to prove it during the concert in Newport that changes his career. These are not isolated events. They form the chain that joins together to become the story of his life.”—Stanley Nelson, director of “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool”

“We made the film in nature, and everything you’re looking at is real. Aside from only two green screen shots, we were out on location, under the sun, with sweat and bugs. We wanted it to be visceral in that way, and we wanted to make an adventure that wasn’t created in a computer. In a sense, we were staging a protest of sorts about how films increasingly are these totally antiseptic, disconnected things that all have the personality of a machine, which is where they are being made. You have these adventures for children where the whole film is about them running around in the forest and the kids probably never went outside the entire time. We wanted to reconnect to this sense that real adventure means getting dirty. It means taking risks and facing danger and getting hurt. Those were what adventures were to me as a kid. If I came home covered in mud and blood, I had a good time.”—Benh Zeitlin, director of “Wendy”

“The intimacy coordinator is just there to be that extra person who’ll come to you before you start filming a scene. They’ll walk you through everything that is going to happen and even if you’ve signed a contract saying, ‘Yes, I’m going to do this or show this,’ you can still change your mind. You can tell that person, ‘I don’t feel comfortable doing that,’ and they will be the ones who communicate that so you won’t feel as bad. When you go into a scene, they’ll make sure that everything is choreographed and everyone is okay and comfortable with what is happening. They’ll provide safety garments or undergarments or little mini yoga mats if you don’t want your bodies to touch. They are there to be that protection when you may not feel it is your place to speak up, even though it is, but it helps you in those moments where it’s difficult to do so.”—Sydney Sweeney, star of “Euphoria”

“This is a name drop, but back when he was alive, Harold Pinter had encouraged me to go and see a production of ‘Old Times.’ He was sitting with his wife Antonia at dinner, and she said, ‘It’s my favorite of Harold’s plays.’ Then Harold and I had a couple drinks, and you could generally ask him some questions, so I asked him which of his own plays was his favorite. He said it was ‘The Homecoming,’ and when I asked why, he replied, ‘Well, it’s all a question of shape.’ I asked, ‘And what shape is ‘The Homecoming’?’, and he went, ‘It’s—[moves hand up at an incline, and then drops it straight down]—and that’s it.’ I’ll never forget that shape he described. It’s like a wedge. So I often think of story in terms of shape. That’s as good a way of thinking about it as any.”—Sam Mendes, director of “1917”

“I think I remember that our ending only really worked when we held the smiles back in the cut. When they were just looking at each other, you knew what existed between them. Without the smiles, it suddenly felt like a whole other level of romance, like this is serious. The reason that ending works is because no one has to say anything. It relies on everything the audience has seen that has taken place in the movie between these two characters. By the end, you totally understand what that feeling in the air is between them. You’re involved in their chemistry and you’re able to go with the swell of emotion without anything needed to be said. The impact of that moment definitely has to do with whatever has already been planted. As a filmmaker, you shouldn’t spell that out for the audience, but rather, just allow them to be there.”—Lance Daly, director of “Kisses”

The second part of this retrospective post contains excerpts from every review I’ve written for RogerEbert.com over the past year, seven of which earned four stars. The movies are listed in order of most to least worth seeking out, beginning with Russian director Kantemir Balagov’s astonishing wartime drama “Beanpole,” which is guaranteed to rank very high on my list of 2020’s best films. Click on each title, and you will be directed to the full review…

Beanpole

Along with his brilliant 24-year-old cinematographer, Kseniya Sereda, Balagov sports the confidence to tell his story chiefly through the faces of his characters as well as their placement in the frame, thereby making the dialogue of secondary importance. His use of long takes never calls attention to itself, while allowing his actors to engage in a subtly choreographed dance that tells us more about their relationship than words ever could. It’s crucial not to cut between emotional beats, since it is in those lingering pauses and unspoken shifts where the heart of the film lies.”

The Load

Just as a blocked bridge forces Vlada to reroute his journey, the narrative consistently veers off into unexpected territory, and the more it frustrates our expectations, the more it has us hooked. This is a film hinging not on cathartic explosions but rather, the gradual discovery of horrifying, self-implicating secrets.”

Clemency

In a breathtaking three-minute shot on par with the finale of Céline Sciamma’s ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire,’ the camera holds on Bernadine’s face as the primal horror of the procedure she has overseen for years finally sinks in, breaking through her hardened exterior until he flatlines, prompting her own body to go limp. For the first time, she finds herself at a loss for words, just as Anthony was during her feeble attempts at interaction. You can literally spot the moment when her soul appears to have left her body.”

Rewind

‘Rewind’ is a therapeutic masterwork on par with Bing Liu’s ‘Minding the Gap,’ both of which affirm how the essence of cinema is the act of seeing ourselves reflected in one another’s stories, as demonstrated by how Henry’s memory of focusing on bathroom tiles while being abused mirrors his daughter’s recollection of losing herself in the picture of a cat, thereby shielding her mind from the transgression felt by her body.”

Beyond the Visible – Hilma af Klint

“Halina Dyrschka’s debut feature is one of the best films I’ve seen about fine art. It casts an entrancing spell that allows the staggering depth of its subject’s work to consume us, while showing how her trailblazing vision left an unmistakable imprint in over a century of iconic art spanning various mediums, resounding through history like a drop of colored paint in a pitcher of water.”

Share

“Though we are made acutely aware of every mode by which Mandy is being watched—from gossiping cliques to surveillance cameras—Bianco never lets us become disconnected from the world that resides within her heroine’s mind and soul. Scene after scene provides a masterful example of how cinema can channel what filmmaker Deborah Kampmeier dubbed ‘the female experience,’ immersing us in the sort of fleeting nuances often left on the cutting room floor.”

Burning Cane

Both men are now full-blown alcoholics, swerving at diagonal angles down the path of their lives while wounding passersby in the process. Yet neither Daniel nor Tillman is a cardboard villain on the order of the awful husband in ‘War Room,’ prior to his sudden salvation courtesy of affair-disrupting food poisoning. They are the products of a system breeding toxic masculinity by dealing the Get Out of Hell Free card of forgiving-and-forgetting, brushing under the rug what should be dealt with out in the open.”

The Wolf House

I’ve always found that such spectacular imagery is all the more impressive in its hand-crafted nature, and it is the deliberate artifice of Cociña and León’s stop-motion marvel that makes it so spellbinding. Characters decompose and reform without warning as the design of the surrounding space continues to shift, heightening our disorientation at every turn. Painted figures suddenly turn three-dimensional and inanimate objects prove to have as much life as the laughing furniture in ‘Evil Dead II.’”

Tape

The split that resided within Mudd manifests itself in the parallel stories of Pearl and Rosa, who respectively embody the actress’ past and present selves. By looking directly into Pearl’s eyes via the concealed camera and seeing her own disillusionment and bewilderment reflected within them, Rosa is able to free herself from the prison of unearned shame, in much the same way that Mudd felt ‘less stupid’ after seeing Fuhrman’s performance.”

Fantastic Fungi

Schwartzberg’s film quickly proves to be one of the year’s most mind-blowing, soul-cleansing and yes, immensely entertaining triumphs. With the Amazon rainforest on fire and no discernible endgame for our dependency on fossil fuels, this picture provides a beacon of hope that feels neither hollow nor forced. Its illustration of fungi’s resilience is dazzling on both a visual and intellectual level, while affirming with matter-of-fact clarity that we, as a species, must evolve with nature in order to prevent our own extinction.”

Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn

The sobering truth about Cohn—and Trump, for that matter—is that they are the natural spawn of a society that cloaks systemic oppression in the guise of democracy, while rewarding bad behavior so long as it’s privileged. Monsters like Cohn are created by a nation that judges its people based on the level of their clout rather than the content of their character. Cohn embodies the primal urge to succeed at all costs, and the first step toward defeating him is to root him out in ourselves.”

Denise Ho: Becoming the Song

The triumph of Williams’ film is in how it illustrates that the fight for democracy unfolding around the world is one and the same. Unity can be achieved when we find ourselves reflected in someone else’s song, and Ho’s indelible music could very well be the definitive anthem of our collective struggle.”

When Lambs Become Lions

Only at the midway point is it revealed that the link between these two men runs deeper that it may have initially appeared, as they share the same frame to strike a deal that causes Asan to lose all sense of his personal convictions. This is artfully conveyed by a shot of Asan’s foregrounded head blurring in focus, as the canopy of stars above him exude their piercing light.”

Circus of Books

Josh’s decision to come out of the closet forced his mother to break down the wall of denial separating her work from her family. Her ability to love and accept her son while keeping her faith intact is akin to Henry Drummond slamming together a Bible and Darwin’s The Descent of Man at the end of ‘Inherit the Wind,’ affirming that they are no longer incongruous.”

At War

In one of the film’s most harrowing sequences, riot shields are brandished by officers to push Laurent and his crowd of activists out of a lobby, herding them like cattle. It’s an apt metaphor for how the vulnerable are provoked into violence by literally being shoved out of public view until they snap.”

Adam

Having grown up emulating the cisgender identities that have dominated screens both large and small, Ernst has flipped the narrative by having a cis character emulate ‘trans-ness,’ causing him to learn things about himself that would’ve otherwise been left hidden and repressed. Ernst doesn’t feel a moral obligation to only depict behavior onscreen that he endorses, and neither should any filmmaker, for that matter. Such limitations are the antithesis of art.”

For They Know Not What They Do

The recent protests against systemic racism and prejudice in our country are not the end goal but the opening act, and we must all play a role in ensuring that the fight for equality not only persists, but is victorious. That can’t happen without uncomfortable, long-belated conversations being had with those on the other end of the ideological spectrum, and this film could serve as a welcome ice-breaker.”

Serendipity

I absorbed ‘Serendipity’ as I would the marvels at an art museum, in a state of hushed awe. As Nourry juxtaposes the reshaping of her body post-surgery with the sculpting of The Amazon, we understand with newfound clarity how her process of molding each creation has helped her reach a place of acceptance regarding her own evolving physicality.”

Dosed

The enforced period of isolation we are separately sharing in gives us a great deal of time for reflection, and my hope is that it will illuminate for us the sheer miraculousness of our existence, not to mention how intrinsically connected we are with every fellow inhabitant on our planet. We truly possess the power to write our own collective ending, and nature is equipped with the tools to guide us toward a happy one. Dorothy was right. We needn’t look any further than our own backyard.”

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Paweł Puchalski and Charlotte Gainsbourg in Eric Barbier’s “Promise at Dawn.” Courtesy of Menemsha Films.

Promise at Dawn

In many ways, Niney is the film’s standout, as he undergoes a remarkable transformation from a gangly young man to a weathered war hero over the course of a story spanning multiple decades. He earns the film’s biggest laugh when Roman, driven mad by mosquitos while stationed in Africa, tries killing one of the blood-sucking insects with his gun, perhaps the funniest attempt at fly-swatting since Vegas showgirl Candie clocked a guy with a TV remote in ‘Twin Peaks: The Return.’”

Sea of Shadows

After nearly an hour of set-up, we observe how the well-intentioned efforts of Ladkani’s subjects result in one wrenching failure after another. The single most powerful moment is followed by a prolonged silence that enables us to feel the weight of the loss, as Vaquita CPR program manager Cynthia Smith discovers that her beloved marine mammal is unequipped to survive in captivity.”

Gay Chorus Deep South

The overwhelming positivity in this footage is illuminating and encouraging, yet also more than a touch puzzling, raising questions of precisely where this intolerance hibernates when cameras aren’t around to support such devastating legislation. Let us pray that the optimism on display here, signaling an overarching move towards civil unity across the United States, is more than just a cinematic mirage.”

Lucky Grandma

Though Shelton and Sealy are entirely different filmmakers, both are deft at bringing out the flavor in genres that could’ve easily been treated as run of the mill. As a recipient of AT&T’s Untold Stories grant that boasts an all-female crew of filmmakers, ‘Lucky Grandma’ exemplifies the potential of a more inclusive cinematic landscape, one that is guaranteed to alter the predominant Hollywood beliefs regarding what constitutes a mainstream appetite.”

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Shane Carruth and Jeremy Childs in Billy Senese’s “The Dead Center.” Courtesy of Arrow Video.

The Dead Center

On that level of in-the-moment visceral impact, Senese’s cinematic spook house delivers the goods, yet as soon as it ended, the spell it cast evaporated rather quickly. The plot seems sillier the more one mulls it over, yet it’s a testament to the film that we’re not preoccupied with questions of probability for the duration of its running time.”

Give Me Liberty

I suspect those viewers all-too-familiar with the relentless stresses of caregiving and being cared for will find little hilarity in Mikhanovsky’s Job-like portrait of a young medical transport driver, Vic (Chris Galust), who carries the weight of a broken system on his slender shoulders. Perhaps I would’ve laughed more at his plight if I wasn’t busy having a panic attack.”

Heimat Is a Space in Time

The biggest problem with Heise’s film is that it plays more like a rough cut. At 3 hours and 38 minutes, what begins as an entrancing experience becomes increasingly exhausting, as the mere act of squinting at nonstop subtitles set against largely light backdrops requires more than one intermission.”

The Infiltrators

So many families have been robbed of their loved ones because of systemic xenophobia, and ‘The Infiltrators’ serves as a touching ode to those tireless activists unafraid to fight for their dreams. It is a flawed but important film with a great one straining to break free.”

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Kimberley Datnow in Laura Holliday’s “Daddy Issues.” Courtesy of Clean Slate Productions.

Daddy Issues

None of the characters are developed enough to register as anything more than sketch comedy tropes fit for improv exercises rather than a feature-length film. If the film had been funnier, this wouldn’t have been as much of a problem, yet Holliday also wants to convey an important message, and that’s difficult to achieve when the world she has constructed lacks believability.”

Viral: Antisemitism in Four Movements

The lack of a nuanced Islamic perspective in this section, combined with the string of antisemitic killings spliced together, is distressing, to say the least. There’s no question that Islamophobia is also on the rise around the globe, and this film—however inadvertently and well-intentioned—plays directly into it.”

Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer

Landsman seems to buy his subjects’ argument that the publication took a nosedive after conservative mogul David Pecker became the new publisher, even though his conduct is no more rotten than that of Pope Jr. Both silenced #MeToo stories for the sake of personal bias while claiming that their propaganda was somehow noble.”

Tel Aviv on Fire

The film’s apolitical stance results in it making no statement, apart from concluding that lucrative narratives on screens both large and small have now become as unending as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I cannot imagine a more depressing fate than that.”

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Michel Ocelot’s “Dilili in Paris.” Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Dilili in Paris

So focused are the English actors in mimicking the rhythm of the original French dialogue and movements of the animation that it frequently causes the characters to pause in random places, as if they were all possessed by the awkward cadences of Christopher Walken.”

The Price of Desire

There’s no question that this movie was a labor of love, which makes its shortcomings all the more heartbreaking. Why couldn’t Gray serve as our fourth-wall breaking narrator rather than Le Corbusier, who sullies every moment he’s onscreen with his tiresome mustache-twirling and artless exposition?”

The Weekend

In a film with very little worth recommending, Wise deserves props for dutifully taking on what is, essentially, Jami Gertz’s role as the disposable fiancé in ‘Twister.’ As soon as Margot exited the picture, I couldn’t wait for a tornado to bear down and swallow up the rest of the cast.”

The Mindfulness Movement

After a while, I started feeling like Peter Graves in ‘Airplane!’ when he found himself demonstrating the various signs of food poisoning as they’re listed by Leslie Nielsen. With every successive sequence warning about the symptoms of avoiding meditation—restlessness, agitation, a wandering mind, etc.—I became so restless, agitated and distracted that I simply wanted to close my eyes. Then the film instructed me to do precisely that during two minute-long meditation demos, which was a welcome reprieve, though it proved even harder to keep my eyes open after that.”

In addition to these interviews and reviews, I also found time to review five shows: “Tales from the Loop” on Amazon, “Belgravia” on Epix, “Normal People” on Hulu, “Hightown” on Starz—and my clear favorite, “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” on Netflix. I’ve covered the Indy Shorts International Film Festival, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and the ReelAbilities Film Festival, as well as the 2020 Academy Awards. This is the first year in which the Oscar ceremony felt like an afterthought to me, though it did still have its share of memorable moments, not least of all Bong Joon-ho’s historic Best Picture win for “Parasite.” At the 2:30 mark of the clip embedded below, you’ll hear my question for Hildur Guðnadóttir, the brilliant Icelandic composer of Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” who became the first woman to win the Best Original Score category since it combined both comedic and dramatic contenders two decades ago…

To read Part I of my anniversary retrospective, which compiles my interviews and essays published over the last twelve months at Indie Outlook, click here.

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