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4 stars

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Captain Fantastic was about a father who raised his kids in the woods because he did not trust modernity. It was a terrible movie, mainly because the grown man (Viggo Mortensen) wouldn’t shut up about his philosophy and how superior it was. This movie is about another father (Ben Foster) who insists on living off the grid with his teenage daughter. This is a better film, and the relationship between Foster and Thomason McKenzie is well developed.  But their circumstances suffer from too little explication.  Why are they off the grid? What brought them to this extremist situation? All we really know is that Mom is dead, Foster is introverted and plagued and that as much as he appears to love his daughter, he is really just making her share his demons.

McKenzie is accomplished as the girl torn between loyalty to her Dad and a need to connect with and be in the wider world.  Her desire to commune, to be a part of, is heart-rending.  Writer-director Deborah Granik’s Winter’s Bone put Jennifer Lawrence on the map and I can see this film doing the same for McKenzie.  Foster, as always, is stellar as the troubled father, economical and precise.  There is a scene where he is required to answer a computerized voice asking him true or false questions to determine his mental health that he handles beautifully.

There is also a thematic bright spot.  The duo are consistently helped by people who are outgoing, caring and supportive, and yet, Foster rejects all their assistance, underscoring just how near impossible it is to deal with many mentally ill people. The system and surrounding community are, for a change, not the villains. They’re the heroes. And for the most part, it ain’t enough.

On Amazon.

 

 

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Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight was the best film of 2016, and his latest picture is of the same high quality, with the same dreamy, contemplative finish.  Told in flashback and forward, Jenkins’ script is based on a James Baldwin novel set in 1970s Harlem.  We meet childhood friends Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) as young adults who have become lovers.  Fonny is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, and a pregnant Tish, with her family and Fonny’s father, work to pay the legal fees and perform the legwork to free Fonny from prison.

While this film is about many things, at its core, it is a love story, and Baldwin lovingly melds the city and the courtship with great care.  There are scenes that seem almost like portraits, sensuous and evocative, such is the care he takes with his actors and the setting.

The film is also about race, and in this regard, it is subdued in its expression but forthright in its message.  Baldwin is not interested in a political discussion, but instead, a demonstration of how racism pervades the lives of his characters in the seams, adding just another weight to an already heavy institutional burden.  In the wrong hands, the theme would be overwritten and perhaps worse, overacted.  Not here.  The drag of the inequity is not sugarcoated but rather, presented as an open, inescapable legacy for the characters, which leaves a deep impression.

I have two criticisms.  First, Tish often speaks in voice over, which I am not opposed to in all circumstances, but which also suggests a little distrust in the narrative.  Given the ethereal nature of the picture, Jenkins likely felt it necessary to have Tish’s voice explicitly draw us back to the story, but I found it obtrusive and unnecessary.  Second, a racist cop sends Fonny away, and when we meet him, he is so gruesome, so cartoonishly evil, it almost felt as if he would twirl his mustache.  Perhaps that is what Jenkins was going for, to show the cop as the bogeyman the characters see, but I have to say, it was discordant.

Finally, all of the performance are impressive, but as Tish’s mother, Regina King is understated, yet commanding.  She is a veteran of many movies (Ray, Enemy of the State) and even more TV series where she’s mostly powerful and overt, but here, she transcends anything she has done before with a subtle, restrained, nuanced performance.

 

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The film is conceptually ingenious, spooky, nerve wracking, terrifying and meticulously paced and acted. This tale of a family’s descent into madness and the occult scared the bejeezus out of me. Only slightly gory, the horror is all psychological. It is, however, very cruel to its characters, sometimes too cruel even for me.

I’m getting too old for this shit.

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Imagine HBO’s Veep, but instead of the made-up travails of a narcissistic, ambitious politician in the form of Julia Louis Dreyfus, you have Khrushchev, Beria, Molotov, Zhukov and Malenkov, all jockeying for power and survival after Stalin has passed.  Like Veep, writer-director Armando Iannucci’s movie is undeniably hilarious, providing the entire swath of the comedic, from slapstick (the scene where each central committee member arrives at Stalin’s unconscious body on the floor, only to engage poorly with his urine, is gut-busting) to sharp wit delivered so fast, you catch it 30 seconds later.  Steve Buscemi’s scheming Khrushchev is inspired, as is Jeffrey Tambor’s vain toady Malenkov (good to see him again since his banishment for his own crimes against the state).

The only aspect that drops this a half point is the milieu.  It is undeniably funny, but we are dealing not with the trials and tribulations of Vice President Selena Meyer, which are ultimately trivial, but the terror and horror of the Soviet state, which sometimes tempers the laughs.

But only a little (at least, for me).  It is, after all, a very black comedy.  The film is currently on the Showtime schedule and was also one of The New York Times top 10 for 2018.  It’s also one of mine, thus far.

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Brian De Palma is a fascinating subject, in many ways, as fascinating a subject as a director. His best work is admittedly and unabashedly derivative, basically a total homage to Hitchcock (Carrie, Dressed to Kill, The Untouchables).  He has also made some atrocious films (Body Double, Casualties of War, Bonfire of the Vanities) and some films you can hate and then love and then hate again (Scarface, Carlito’s Way).

No matter how you feel about De Palma’s work, his recollections of film making in 70s and 80s Hollywood are a blast, and he’s a very easy and open storyteller.  This is an entertaining, comfortable review of his work presented entirely in clips and a single interview.

A few great tidbits: as a teenager, De Palma tailed his own father when he was cheating on his mother; during the execrable Casualties of War, Sean Penn would physically bully Michael J Fox and whisper to him “television actor.”

Good, fun stuff.  I’d take this sort of retrospective over a slathering like HBO’s Spielberg any day of the week.  Currently on Netflix streaming.

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Mr. Rogers should have been right in my wheelhouse when I was a kid. I was around six or seven when he went national. However, public television was not a staple in my Catholic household. The only glimpse I got was when I went to the home of my Jewish friend, whose parents included PBS in their progressivism, but by the time we became pals, Fred Rogers was there to be mocked, not appreciated.

It’s a shame, because watching this documentary and Rogers interacting with little kids, you can see both the wonder in their eyes and the deep connections he developed. There is a vignette with a little boy who is explaining to Mr. Rogers’ most famous hand puppet, Daniel, about how his cat was run over by a car. The boy is being stoic but when Daniel becomes emotional, you can see the boy become protective as well. His concern transfers to the puppet and in the transfer, he creates a beautiful and healthy way to express his grief.  It’s a stunning exchange.

Genuinely sweet, good and largely uncomplicated public figures are a difficult find. This documentary does a great job of telling the story of one such man.  It has faults – it is thin on his background, it over emphasizes some cable noise about his effect on children (i.e., made them soft), and it succumbs a little to the “these dark times” trope – but these are nits. Highly recommended as both entertainment and moral tonic.