Franklin Schaffner’s (Patton) big-budget adventure/escape flick is competent, professional, well-acted (even if Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman have no interest in playing French people) and occasionally imaginative, particularly McQueen’s dream sequences as he fights solitary confinement and near-starvation. McQueen is the title character, sent to French Guiana for killing a pimp, where he meets the bespectacled Hoffman, a forger whose only protection is the ability to bribe officials. Their relationship deepens as McQueen, the Cooler King of The Great Escape, naturally attempts escape again and again here.

You may like the flick or not, but it is noteworthy for one scene, below. That crocodile has its snout wired shut and sure, it is drugged to the gills, but those are two massively bankable stars messing with a real crocodile. Nuts!


On MAX (formerly HBO Max).

Perfectly pleasant, adept, and without a moment of originality, a very nice 2 hours delving into Michael Jordan and his first sneaker contract. You will likely enjoy the movie, and then you’ll never think about it again.

Of note is the easy charm of Ben Affleck as Nike founder Phil Knight, the dogged everyman turn by Matt Damon playing Nike basketball scout Sonny Vaccaro, the wry Jason Bateman (Nike Marketing manager Rob Strasser), and the steely resolve of Viola Davis playing Michael Jordan’s mother. All give superb, professional, wholly unchallenging turns that complement both each other and Alex Converey’s tight, predictable script. Marlon Wayans playing Jordan coach and confidante George Raveling also contributes in a poignant scene where he advises Vaccaro on how to approach the budding star.

On the minus side, this is a movie about signing a basketball player to a shoe deal, and the film doesn’t really find anything particularly insightful about this mundane negotiation, other than Damon’s dawning that Jordan will be a God amongst men. So godly is His Airness that while he is present, inexplicably, we only see the back of his head. Jordan never speaks, which both reinforces the picture’s theme that he is near-deity and serves as a tremendous cop-out and missed opportunity.

 I mean, don’t we all want to know what God thinks when negotiating a shoe deal?

Mind you, the script is larded with b.s. Nike’s underdog status in the competition to sign Jordan is poppycock, as is the fact that his agent David Falk (a hilariously entertaining Chris Messina) was hostile to the deal. The dollar amount the young upstart company was allotted to go after Jordan is also understated by half.  And Vaccaro never made the decision to breach negotiating etiquette by going over Falk’s head to visit Jordan’s parents in North Carolina, a fiction seminal to the movie. 

The mushy camaraderie of this band of Nike visionaries may also have been a bit much. Worse, the truth may have made for a more interesting picture. Per Slate, “Vaccaro, as might be expected, disputes all these other versions of events robustly, saying “Phil Knight’s lying, Michael’s lying more than Phil, and Raveling is insane. All three of them need to destroy me to live happily ever after. Everyone’s trying to rewrite history. It goes beyond Jordan. I am the savior of Nike.’ It seems that Vaccaro, far from being the easygoing, collegial guy the film depicts, had a tendency to burn bridges. He fell out with Raveling in 1991 and was fired by Nike without explanation that same year.’” Now, that’s a guy I want to see a movie about, not the milk-and-cookies, faux cynical but really schmaltzo character Damon cooks up.

Okay. It’s not a documentary – enough of my curmudgeonly nitpicking. There is certainly greater appeal here for others. When I watched Winning Time on HBO – the laughably ridiculous rendition of the Lakers ascent in the late 70s/early 80s at the advent of Magic Johnson – it was hard to stifle a laugh throughout, and my wife and daughter joined in. But they also liked the series more than me. It was set in a milieu and about a subject they knew nothing about and they were more than happy to enjoy it without worrying about accuracy or any hackneyed presentations. Here too, though she found if “Hallmarky,” my daughter dug Air and noted that she didn’t really know much about any of it before seeing the movie.

Also, if you pine for all things 80s, from Cyndi Lauper to Tecmo Bowl to skateboards, run, don’t moonwalk, to Amazon Prime, because this thing is loaded with “Let’s Get Physical” Reagan-era montages.   

Treacle and cornpone to its very core, an exercise in nostalgic tedium. Reese Witherspoon loved the book, a story of murder and mystery and coming of age in the swamps of a North Carolina small town. So the movie got made, in exactly the vein and manner of this vacuous and generic interview with the producer

Daisy Edgar-Jones (Normal People, Under the Banner of Heaven) is Kaya, one of a kabillion kids living in the marsh with her abusive father and helpless mother. Soon, the mother ups and leaves (Kaya yells “Mommy, Mommy” but as is the style in this type of Southern gothic turdpile, Mom sleepwalks down the misty driveway, never looking back). Kaya’s siblings soon follow (one of whom basically tells 9 year old Kaya “stay low” to survive just before he abandons her). Then her father splits, and Kaya is consigned to a life alone as the spooky swamp girl. Mind you, for the rest of her life (and when we leave her, she is in her mid-twenties), not one of her siblings circles back to see if, maybe, their little sister is ok. Her serviceman brother does a perfunctory drop-in later, when she is on trial for murder, meaning he was an adult for 12 or so years and couldn’t be bothered.  

The film’s version of 1960s rural poverty is to the real McCoy what the Disney ride is to actual pirates in the Caribbean. You soon suspect the swamp girl is derided by the locals not for her foreign and mysterious ways, or any class condescension, but rather, for her stunning cheekbones, luminous skin, and pearly white teeth.

The entire feel is inauthentic, as if brought to you by Loew’s or Home Depot. The swamp feels more like a fern bar, the town like Smallville, the characters every single archetype you’ve seen before.

We even get Kaya’s ponderous voiceover telling us things we can plainly see, half Marlin Perkins, half Judy Blume.

Kaya grows up and is caught in a tepid love triangle between two disinteresting homogenous actors with the mien of reality tv star brothers who macrame.

Could this be a double murder? Oh to dream!

Sadly, no. Kaya goes on trial for the murder of only Siegfried, not Roy, and perhaps the most boring legal drama in filmic history ensues. The case is so weak, you expect the actor playing the prosecutor to turn to the camera and shrug in apology. Kaya’s defense attorney (David Strathairn) shreds all witnesses with easy politeness, stopping just short of patting them on the head at the conclusion of his cross examination.

With the verdict a foregone conclusion, the reveal (she did/did not do it!) is anticlimactic in the extreme, made worse by the filmmakers’ decision to withhold “how” she did or did not do it.  

It’s all clearly too much for director Olivia Newman, who had some TV episodes on her resume’, to handle. She can’t settle in on any one aspect of the story (the disconnect between town and swamp, the thriller, the abandonment and solitude, the love stories) with any depth so we get a steamed, soggy pu pu platter of platitudinous porridge. The fact that the dull screenplay was written by Beasts of the Southern Wild co-writer Lucy Alibar is both confounding and depressing.

In the end, Kaya becomes a big star. Music swells. Crawdads sing. Cursing of Reese Witherspoon’s reading habits follows.  

On Netflix.

BJ Novak‘s black comedy nicely straddles the line between laugh-out loud funny and acerbically insightful. Ultimately, a culture class vehicle, the film also hits every one of its marks in blue and red America.

Ben Manalowitz (Novak) is a NYC writer who longs to host a hot transformative podcast, a vessel for his views of America. When we meet him, he is so hiply ironic and up his own butt, there’s not a lot to root for. But we do, because he seems adrift and in struggle for meaning. Once you get past all his posturing, he also seems decent, if weak.

Novak’s Ben reminds me of Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath in Girls, a clearly unsympathetic protagonist shown in an unflattering light who still manages to elicit empathy. Novak skewers himself mercilessly (shout out to John Mayer, whose one scene with Novak is a hilarious, ostentatious riff between two “bro’s” that introduces Ben and what he is about with economical precision), but stops short of the cartoonish, offering a balanced portrayal of a narcissistic guy with bite-sized intellectual pretensions who also wants to be a good dude.

When Ben gets a call from a distraught man in Texas telling him that his sister and Ben’s girlfriend Abilene is dead, it takes Ben a minute to realize that she was just one of his many occasional hookups, one who must have told her family that he was her steady boyfriend back in the city.  Ben takes an extra beat to see a trip to Texas for Abilene’s funeral as an opportunity to immerse himself in some of the America he waxes so philosophically about. Upon arrival, a hot podcast is born.

Ben is the quintessential fish-out-of-water, and in lesser hands, the film would have had little to say about the cultural divide while maximizing the pratfalls and faux pas of a NYC Jew in shitkicker county. Or, the picture would have jettisoned the funny for deep intonement about the state of our current national fracture, such as it is. 

Novak smartly balances both elements while crafting a genuine connection he makes with Abilene’s family.  A scene where Ben attends a rodeo is gut-busting, another where he interviews Abilene’s record producer (an impressively soulful Ashton Kutcher) is thought-provoking and intelligent, and the deeper his dive into fly-over country, the funnier and more meaningful the picture becomes. Novak takes hard, amusing, and accurate shots at everyone’s station with a humility that elevates the movie.   

The picture suffers just a bit at the end from repetition (a little Ashton Kutcher goes a long way) and a discordant, implausible cherry on the top, but no matter.  Very sharp, very tight, highly recommended.                   

On Amazon Prime.

I’ve seen this film, conservatively, a dozen times. I cannot turn it off. It is flawless, and I never tire of watching. It is not just an exemplary historical drama and period piece, which would appeal to me more than others, but it is one of the finest films ever made. 

Based on a Patrick O’Brian novel, it is 1805, the time of the Napoleonic wars, and we travel with Captain “Lucky Jack“ Aubrey (Russell Crowe), a protégé of Lord Admiral Nelson. Aubrey’s ship, The HMS Surprise, is hunted by, and then pursues, a French privateer with twice her guns and speed. As Aubrey drives his crew and spars with his more humanistic friend and subordinate, ship surgeon Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), we are immersed in the customs, allegiances and frailties of the crew.  Director Peter Weir (Witness) provides the feel of an early 19th-century war vessel, a routinized machine held together by the lash, grog, duty, honor, deep-seated universal superstition, and a shared sense of oneness with the sea.

The action sequences are jaw-dropping. The final sea battle is the most effective and stunning rendition of combat on film, save for the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan.  Weir is expert at close quarter action and translating the ebb and flow of a battle that has been explained in its strategy at the outset. What follows is a stunning, intelligible melee’, and the only respite is a brief, awesome aerial tracking shot to provide scope and a quick catch of breath. And then, Weir dives right back in.  The scene is even more impressive given the film’s commitment to authenticity.  As with Spielberg’s triumph, Weir has made, in the opinion of one reviewer, “one of the most historically accurate movies of this century”. 

Yet for all its visual delights and precision, the film is also memorable in its depiction of numerous secondary characters. Yes, the philosophical interplay between Aubrey and Maturin is well-honed, and both actors more than occupy the roles – their engagement is both familial and genuine, with a constant pull between friendship and chain-of-command. But the midshipmen, some as young as 12, and the salty crew, are the true stars. To see the former in such distress, under such pressure, and in the midst of terror and violence is heart rending. When one (Max Pirkis) must have his arm amputated, it is hard to choke back tears, such is his strength and vulnerability (if you have a son, it is doubly difficult). The mental breakdown of another young sailor is equally poignant. These boys, thrown into carnage, still do their duty, and Weir goes to great lengths to portray their bravery in tandem with their innocence. 

The film is also unreservedly old fashioned in its championing not only of manly camaraderie, but valor, pluck, and devotion to country. Most war films follow a certain post-Vietnam philosophy, often clumsily injected into period pieces of prior times. The combatants’ first devotion is to each other and then to the goal, and they are guided by training and solidarity. When the training fails and/or the goal is revealed as corrupt, or bleakness eclipses all, things break down, and atrocity normally follows. Which is all very modern and ignores any sense of longing for the sting of battle or patriotic instinct, both generally derided or characterized as the province of dimwits and cannon-fodder. It is always the smart guy anti-hero who says, “This is hell, we need to get out alive and with our souls intact, and [for the less cynical] the only thing that matters is the man next to you”’ or some such trope. 

Not here, as Weir flatly rejects anachronism save for a few moments with the good ship doctor, but even Maturin’s more liberal stances are suited to his position.  To put a finer point on it, there is a wonderful scene where one of the young midshipman, Calamy, implores Aubrey to share a tale of his service under the great Nelson. At first, Aubrey parries the request with a joke (Nelson once asked him to pass the salt, he laughs). The boy’s disappointment is palpable, and then Aubrey obliges:

Capt. Jack Aubrey The second time… The second time he told me a story… about how someone offered him a boat cloak on a cold night. And he said no, he didn’t need it. That he was quite warm. His zeal for his king and country kept him warm.

[Maturin sighs] 

Capt. Jack Aubrey I know it sounds absurb, and were it from another man, you’d cry out “Oh, what pitiful stuff” and dismiss it as mere enthusiasm. But with Nelson… you felt your heart glow.

[him and Calamy share a smile] 

Capt. Jack Aubrey Wouldn’t you say, Mr. Pullings?

1st Lt. Tom Pullings [sincerely]  You did indeed, sir.

As fewer people know or cherish history, it will become a less desirable vehicle for entertainment. And that just ain’t going to change.  But there will be this film and a few others that stand the test of time. Huzzah!

On HBO Max. 

A WWII thriller and a staple on the Channel 7 four o’clock movie growing up, Steven Spielberg once named it as his all-time favorite war movie. I don’t know about that, but as a kid, I was pretty jazzed.

Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood lead a group of commandos dropped behind enemy lines in Bavaria – where the barmaids are buxom and the enemy plentiful – to kill an American general who has been captured by the Nazis. They must get to the general before the Germans extract critical information from him.

The picture is more than competent (though overlong at nearly 2.5 hours; in the 70s, on TV, it was cut to 90 minutes, and did not suffer for it). The movie is also smart, as much a whodunit as war thriller, and uber-violent to boot. 

One major problem, however, is the setup. The American general is held in a castle fortress accessible only by cable car. Putting aside the suspension of belief necessary to accept ingress and egress, which is right and proper, the castle also houses hundreds of soldiers, heavy equipment, a barracks, a helicopter pad, a radio room, and enough ammo and explosives to blow itself up. All, of which, apparently, was ferried up in two cable cars that hold 8 people a piece. 

Another problem is just a terrible cheat. In The Dirty Dozen, Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson, dressed as German officers, must mingle with the Nazis in the chateau they plan to blow up. The fact that only Bronson knows how to speak German amps up the dread, leaving Marvin to play it stern and taciturn whenever a real Nazi speaks to him at a pre-all-hell-breaks-loose soiree’. Quentin Tarantino does the same thing with Brad Pitt at the film premiere in Inglorious Basterds , though he plays a bit more comic. But Tarantino also utilizes the speaking of German, or, rather, the sign language of a German, to brilliant, suspenseful effect, when Michael Fassbender makes a critical error and is thus found out, which was presaged in The Great Escape:

But I digress. 

Here, as Burton and Eastwood approach a checkpoint, where their papers are to be reviewed, you wonder which one is going to speak German.  I assumed Burton.  Then again, I never assumed Eastwood would sing in a musical, but Lord Almighty, that’s him singing Gold Fever in Paint Your Wagon:

So, who knows, right?  Well, it turns out, neither of them speak German.  Instead, they speak English LOUDLY, and the guards figure they don’t want to interrupt two German officers speaking loudly. Translated? Neither actor wanted to learn a little German, so we are left to believe that the guards heard German, even though we did not. Very lame.

On the plus side, Eastwood is Eastwood cool and he conservatively, single-handedly, kills at least 100 Nazis. At 10 years of age, I was sold. There’s also a fair amount on double-crosses (the picture is written by Alistair MacLean), and while I can’t prove it, I suspect Tarantino saw the picture and it informed his unparalleled French cellar bar shootout in Basterds.

On HBO Max.  

P.S. After writing my suspicions about Tarantino, I Googled a bit and now claim semi-vindication. Tarantino has lauded the picture on numerous occasions, particularly during his promotion of Basterds

Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is one of the best films of the last 25 years and would rank in my own top 25 of all time.  So, no matter the negative notices, any of his pictures merits a look.

Blonde received scads of poor notices.  Justifiably so.

The picture has much in common with Elvis, and you get the sense that Dominik, like Baz Luhrmann, was behind the eight-ball from the outset.  Both biopics are devoted to broad pop icons with fixed public personas that, when pierced, reveal soft, dull goo.  So, the directors make up for the deficit by untethering the stories from fact, gussying up the visuals, and stretching for a larger point. As with Elvis, we quickly learn a good-looking picture can only get you so far.

Make no mistake.  Blonde is a visual feast. But it has no real narrative. We meet poor Norma Jean as a child brutalized by her mentally ill mother, and then she’s brutalized via casting couch, and then she seeks shelter in a “throuple” with two men, who take advantage of her sexually and financially. Soon, Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) shows up out of nowhere, and then Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody), and then JFK, and soon, drugs and death. One calamity after another, one torment replacing another. None of her relationships are developed. Rather, her romantic entanglements just appear, are thunderstruck, and then we move to the next victim/victimizer.

It is all very sad, but watching a film is transactional, and you soon wonder, “Why am I supposed to care?”

Ana de Armas as Marilyn is occasionally effective (in particular, during a riveting audition), but for the most part, she’s a cartoon, cooing “Daddy” (to her own, unknown father and every man she has chosen to replace him) in a breathy, childlike manner at such a rate that you can almost see DiMaggio and Miller thinking, “Yikes! I thought the ditzy bombshell thing was an act? How do I get myself out of this?”

de Armas was nominated for best actress, and much like Natalie Portman in Jackie, the rendition is an over-the-top caricature of a public figure, where their peculiar tics are amplified. When her Cuban accent makes one of many appearances, it doesn’t really bother.  There’s just too much else wrong with the performance, as if someone told de Armas to play Marilyn as a perpetual thirteen year old girl. With a concussion.  

Not that de Armas was given much to work with.  In one scene, she is with the none-too-impressed DiMaggio women, who are making spaghetti, and she lilts, “ooooh … real spaghetti? Like . . . not from a store?”

There’s plenty more where that came from in this ridiculous script. At the premiere of her first big film, as the crowd erupts in thunderous applause for the town’s new star, Marilyn breathily says, out loud, “For this, I killed my baby.”

Hoo boy.

Dominik’s missteps can also be traced to his misunderstanding of Monroe in the American consciousness: “If you spent 70 years enjoying a fantasy of a person; then a movie comes along that says she was not complicit in your enjoyment, it puts you in an uncomfortable position for having enjoyed it. People don’t want to be put in that position; they want her to be the one that created their enjoyment, and was along for the ride, then had a bad year and killed herself. That’s not the way it works. There’s no redemption in suicide. Americans don’t like you to monkey with their mitts too much. They very often want to jump to the solution without looking at any of the trauma.”

I am not unreceptive to some of these observations, but as applied to Monroe, Dominik is just wrong,  He is talking about the Monroe of Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” which was so long ago (1973, only 11 years after Monroe’s death) the song has been repurposed for Lady Diana (and will eventually be repurposed again when the next pop starlet dies before her time). Americans are not so protective of Monroe that Dominik’s pedestal tipping would elicit a reflexive defense.  Rather, in modern memory, she was a sexy, mentally disturbed, marginal actress who sang a sultry “Happy Birthday, Mr. President!” publicly and privately and then overdosed. Side note: has anyone been taken down further in filmic history than JFK? When I grew up, he was the cool, collected president who saved his mates in PT 109 and stared down the Russians in The Missiles of October. Recently, in The Crown, he was a pill-popping whirling dervish.  Here, he’s a #MeToo emblem, forcefully cajoling Monroe to perform oral sex on him in what has to be the worst scene in the picture.            

I suspect Dominik knows the film fails, but credit him for a stout defense: ”Blonde is a very well worked-out film. Those who don’t think that aren’t watching it. If you sit back and trust that the movie knows what it’s doing, it’ll work.”         

It does not. But if you are hot for a visually impressive, near 3-hour movie about a glamorous, vapid punching bag, Blonde is streaming on Netflix.  

Filmvetter has gaps. Many gaps. Truffaut, Godard, and Bergman come to mind.

And, until now, John Cassavetes.

I knew that Cassavetes was an influential filmmaker. Martin Scorsese credits two films that most informed his career: Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and Cassavetes’ Shadows.  Quentin Tarantino also cites Cassavetes, which is strange, for, as one writer observed, Tarantino makes films “in which almost no element comes from life,” whereas Cassavetes’ work is infused with realism. Others who refer to his work include Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley, and the aforementioned Godard.

But to me, Cassavetes was the nasty, cynical guy in The Dirty Dozen and the husband in Rosemary’s Baby

Until I saw this picture, currently available as part of the Criterion Collection on HBO Max.

Ben Gazzara (“Cosmo”) plays a strip club/cabaret owner in Los Angeles, when showing some thigh and breast still required the trappings of a “show”. His stage girls are his children, and he is a small fish in a big pond. He just doesn’t know it. Until his big shot routine results in a sizable gambling debt to the local mob, who decide to absolve him of the “loan” in exchange for lethal services.

The film is visceral and immediate yet leisurely.  Cassavetes brings you right in on the actors, often letting the dialogue of others register on the one. I was reminded of Boogie Nights and the long take on Mark Wahlberg right before the drug heist, but while that was showy, if effective, Cassavetes’ style is anything but. Instead, it feels natural, almost a controlled improv. Cassavetes gave his actors maximum room, eschewing the Strasberg Method as tired and narcissistic.  Per Matt Zoller Seitz, reviewing Ray Carney’s Cassavetes on Cassavetes: “Among other things, Cassavetes hoped to offer young actors an alternative to the Method, a sensory- and memory-centered approach that was taught, in personalized form, by Actors Studio founder Lee Strasberg (whose students included James Dean, Robert Duvall, Robert De Niro, Elia Kazan, Shelley Winters and many others). Variants of the Method encouraged actors to draw heavily on their own experiences and feelings, and to treat hesitancy and inarticulateness as gateways to truth rather than obstacles to clear expression. A number of Method actors personalized this approach and had great success. But Cassavetes felt that the Method, and Strasberg’s Studio in particular, had become a different sort of factory, and he was ‘…resentful about the power the Studio exerted over casting directors, which he felt was what had held him back early in his career,’ Carney writes. ‘He was scornful of what he called the guru aspects of the Studio and pointedly described his and Lane’s school as anti-guru. He felt that the Method was more a form of psychotherapy than acting, and believed that although figures like (Montgomery) Clift, (Marlon) Brando and Dean had had a salutary effect on acting in the late ’40s and early ’50s, by the mid-’50s the Method had hardened into a received style that was as rigid, unimaginative and boring as the styles it had replaced ten years earlier. The slouch, shuffle, furrow and stammer had been turned into recipes for profundity. The actor filled the character up with his own self-indulgent emotions and narcissistic fantasies…Normal, healthy, extroverted social and sexual expression between men and women dropped out of drama. Inward-turning neuroticism became equated with truth. The result was lazy, sentimental acting.’”

There is none of that in this film, which feels so authentic as to be revolutionary. The picture is riveting, grounded, and wholly personal, with an L.A. devoid of the well-know landmarks, not purposefully omitted but rather, naturalistically absent. Cassavetes sets up a noir-ish crime pic, but perhaps bored with the endeavor, detours repeatedly into Cosmo’s crisis of identity.

Gazzara is captivating. Cassavetes trains in on Cosmo’s every conceit when playing the big man. Cosmo’s descendant is none other than Burt Reynolds’ Jack Horner in Boogie Nights, a semi-proficient pornographer who makes himself father to the talent and creates his own world, one where he is Fellini. Similarly, Cosmo treats his girls like perpetual prom dates and tells the patrons in his seedy club, “I’m the owner of this joint. I choose the numbers, I direct them, I arrange them. You have any complaints you just come to me and I’ll throw you right out on your ass.”

When his powerlessness is revealed, Cassavetes lingers on Cosmo’s doubt and his insistence on maintaining the veneer of control and aplomb reveals a hollowness that progressively evinces during the film. But there is also decency and honor, one that becomes difficult for even the mobsters to ignore.

Savaged by the critics at the time, a classic.

Taut, rich crime drama about the not very good day of London crime boss Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins). When we meet him, Shand is on the cusp of branching out to global semi-legitimacy. He’s even hosting his would-be U.S. partner when his entire organization comes under assault. Key associates are dispatched and an unknown enemy is blowing up his establishments, and just when he thought he was getting out, they pull him back in.

Hoskins is ferocious, at once charming and gregarious and then lethal, but palpably human throughout. You really root for him but sense that his time may have passed, especially as he waxes on about the greatness of the Brits and attempts to connect his own rise to the glory days of his homeland, which doesn’t seem all that glorious as depicted by director John Mackenzie. His London is grimy, gray, and decidedly tired, like Harold’s organization, and is starkly juxtaposed against Shand’s fantasies.

The film is also slyly funny. Shand, for example, scolds his spooked American partners about empire and declares, “we’re in the common market now, I’m going into business with the Germans, yes the bleedin’ Krauts!” And even in the midst of their potential destruction, Shand and his gang share knowing, even juvenile laughs that speak to their intimacy.

Helen Mirren is his devoted wife, desperately trying to keep him grounded, and his entire crew feels more like a disintegrating family than a dangerous group of cutthroats. As it all goes bad, Shand’s hubris, parochialism, and self-satisfaction conspire against him, but the strongest theme is just how hard it is to keep “family” together. One of Shand’s more endearing qualities is his patience with underlings who disappoint him like wayward sons. He’s always in between slugging and hugging them.

The film works as a character study and, for a time, a whodunit (or, “who is doing this?”). Occasionally, it is a bit arty, and weighted down by a strange, synthy 80s score, but for the most part, it is riveting.

On HBO Max.

Katia and Maurice Krafft were world-famous scientists who started studying active volcanos up close and personal in the late 60s. She was a meticulous geologist. He was a daredevil who dreamed of riding a lava flow on his own boat. They grew up in the same town, and as depicted by writer-director Sara Dosa, they were in a multi-decade menage-a-trois with the fiery, fracturing earth. “Once you see an eruption, you can’t live without it because it’s so grandiose, it’s so strong,” says Katia. And you believe her. 

The footage shot by the Kraffts is incredible. They have no reticence and little fear, often camping for weeks in active volcanos, so they are right up close to everything, two kindred souls in thrall. Their story is lovingly rendered by Dosa, who shows us a union fueled by adventure and enhanced in its last years by a commitment to governmental evacuation plans. 

I was reminded of Grizzly Man in terms of access to the dangers of nature. And indeed, the protagonists of both movies eventually press their luck and nature exacts its toll. But where Tim Treadwell’s immersion in the world of bears seemed fraught with an almost messianic hubris and his own narcissism, the Kraffts seem noble in their bravery and grounded in their devotion to the science. Beautiful and haunting.

On Hulu and Disney and nominated for an Oscar as Best Documentary.