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      • Pacific Rim Movie Review : Pathetically Grim
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        Pacific Rim Movie Review : Pathetically Grim

        Pacific Rim is a Guillermo del Toro film. Let me say that again because it’s little a hard to believe. Pacific Rim is a Guillermo del Toro film. The first time I saw the promo of this film, I said to myself it’s going to be...

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      • Interstellar
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        Nolan’s "Interstellar," about astronauts traveling to the other end of the galaxy to find a new home to
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      • San Andreas
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        San Andreas

        In a match between a supremely catastrophic California
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      • image

        We are pleased to offer an excerpt from the September 2020 edition of the online magazine, Bright Wall/Dark Room. This month's issue is dedicated to the legendary Billy Wilder, and in addition to Elizabeth Cantwell's piece on "Ace in the Hole," also features new essays on "The Apartment," "Some Like It Hot," "Double Indemnity," "Sunset Boulevard," "The Fortune Cookie," "People on Sunday," "Ball of Fire," "Ninotchka," "The Major and the Minor," "A Foreign Affair," and more. 

        You can read our previous excerpts from the magazine by clicking here. To subscribe to Bright Wall/Dark Room, or look at their most recent essays, click here. The above art is by Tony Stella. 

        Like many people, my viewing tastes have lately skewed escapist. I don’t want to watch anything new, anything difficult, anything mean, anything sad. I don’t want to watch Serious Films or Important Documentaries. I don’t want long faces and muted lighting. Give me Ethan Embry in Can’t Hardly Wait on the neon-lit bench with Jenna Elfman’s sad stripper dressed as an angel. Give me Kurt Russell hanging on to the bottom of a semi truck in a polo shirt and chinos in the 1997 road-trip thriller Breakdown. Give me Spike and Buffy fighting and making out in a crypt. Give me anything that activates my endorphins but doesn’t engage my neurons in any real complex thought. 

        So when I started watching Billy Wilder’s off-puttingly bitter Ace in the Hole, I was worried. Here was a film with no possible escape. Hell, the film revolves around a man who is literally trapped underground when a cave-in occurs, rendering physical escape impossible. You could also say that the film revolves around a different man, one whose cynicism and lack of belief in anything but cold hard cash has exiled him from the profession he exploits to stay alive, and who is therefore trapped in an undesirable job without hope of an easy exit. Or you could make the argument that Wilder’s film is really about the thousands of extras that the studio hired among locals in Gallup, New Mexico—extras who were paid 75 cents an hour for a 10-hour day to portray gawking Americans forking over cash to attend a literal media circus centering on the “human-interest story” that is a man dying needlessly alone in a cave—Americans trapped in a corrupt, heartless, oppressive system they don’t even have the perspective to understand. Any way you slice it, it’s not a film that you watch to, you know, take a break from the pressures of daily life. Both form and function here are claustrophobic. 

        I thought of the infamous first line of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House: 

        No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. 

        If there were ever a film that didn’t dream, it would be Ace in the Hole. So, then—is it a film that has slipped so far into absolute reality that it has rendered itself (and/or its audience) insane? Or does it simply dream in a way most people can’t detect? 


        A brief but necessary plot summary, in case you haven’t seen the film: Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) has gotten himself fired from just about every newspaper in America thanks to what sounds like generalized asshole behavior. He’s wound up in Albuquerque, the absolute last place an Ambitious, Cultured, Condescending New Yorker wants to be, working for peanuts for an irritatingly morally superior man named Boot (Porter Hall). Tatum wastes away for a year at the paper, growing increasingly unraveled, until he catches a break when a rest stop on the way to a rattlesnake festival yields an overheard conversation, an unfolding situation—a man named Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), who owns the run-down trading post and restaurant where Tatum and his young photographer Herbie have stopped, is trapped in a cave nearby. Tatum jumps on this opportunity, caring not so much about Leo as about the potential to spin Leo’s fate into a national front-page news story. But it’s not enough for Tatum to spend the projected rescue timeline of 12-16 hours observing, interviewing, researching, and ensuring that his story is the best it can possibly be. No, Tatum wants this to be a story that sticks around for a while, with new developments every day for a week or more. He wants tension, suspense, drama, even fear. 

        So he inserts himself into the process. He casts doubt on the rescue method that would get Leo out safely in a day. He colludes with the corrupt sheriff and sees a potential ally in Leo’s jaded, callous wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling), who only married Leo based on a half-truth and a hope for a future that didn’t actually exist. He forces a scenario—drilling down to Leo from the top of the mountain, a process that will take a full week—that will benefit his career, threading the needle with Leo’s life. Tatum runs the clock down as much as he believes he possibly can to milk every drop out of the story, counting on the perfect, last-minute save to crown his dream narrative with eternal glory. Thousands of people gather, camping out, selling ice cream, riding an impromptu Ferris wheel, trampling the earth, scrambling to get a chance to be interviewed on the radio. 

        In case you were getting your hopes up, there’s not a happy ending. 

        Feeling bummed out yet? But wait, there’s more! Lest you wanted to perhaps root for Leo himself, the entire reason he is stuck in the cave is that he routinely takes trips in, against both the advice and the will of the indigenous people, to dig up Native artifacts that he will then sell at his trading post. It’s a gross bit of cultural appropriation, and one that shows just how wide Wilder has cast his net of cynical commentary. The cave, you see, is part of an ancient cliff dwelling regarded as sacred by some native people and historically vital by others. But Leo has no qualms about disturbing the bones of buried men and unearthing items buried with them by their families just to make a quick dime. He doesn’t operate “Minosa’s Indian Curios” because he has any real interest in the history of the indigenous population—he just thought it was a good way to make a buck out in the middle of nowhere. And Tatum, of course, is even worse in this regard. He decides to use the history of the place as fodder to elevate his story’s “human interest,” exaggerating rumors of a stereotypically racist ancient curse (“The Curse of the Seven Vultures”) to sell more papers. 

        Oh, and Lorraine? She’s a real piece of work. Hates Leo, hates New Mexico. She is perhaps a hand-to-God sociopath with no capability for empathy. She warms up a bit to Tatum when she thinks he can help her out monetarily (which he does—the trading post is soon overflowing with clientele drawn to the morbid spectacle of a man suffocating underground), but the potential for that relationship is dampened with a violent kiss, a near-strangulation, and then her own comeback: a proper scissors-stabbing right in the gut, which will slowly kill Tatum during the final act of the film. She leaves quickly, catching a ride out of town, heading out to wreak her acts of careless destruction on people somewhere else. In that sense, I suppose someone does escape—but one gets the sense that her life is not on an upward trajectory.

        You can see why this film was largely a critical and commercial failure when it came out. Even in the new idealistic blush of the early ‘50s, no one wanted to watch a movie that managed to condemn the media, the government, capitalism, love, and human nature all in under two hours. 


        I have a tendency to skew dark and cynical in my outlook on life. It’s always been a defense mechanism of sorts—a way to insulate myself from inevitable pain. If I’m expecting the pain, it won’t hurt as bad when it comes, right? I brace myself for emergency room visits with my children. I text people expecting no response. I mull over what will eventually happen when I’m unable to get a job, when I fail as a friend, when I can’t meet my goals, when the small sore does become cancer, when the late-night drive ends in sirens and cones on the side of the highway. 

        Up until March of this year, my worst-case scenario thinking was frequently proven wrong, which validated the more rational and optimistic people around me who would tell me that I was being too negative or failing to envision all the possible futures. I was working on believing that, sometimes, the 10% chance of rain is just that—a 10% chance—not an inevitable outcome. I was practicing feeling hopeful. I was trying to react to positive occurrences instead of proactively expect negative ones. And then. 

        You know what comes next. The news story you’ve been following nervously unfolds in precisely the way your worst-case scenario brain predicted. The climate change accelerates. The marks your friends told you we wouldn’t hit were hit and passed. The job becomes an impossibility. The death toll rises. And now what? Now what—when your worst-case scenario thinking has been proven true? Now what, you want to ask your therapist, but don’t. How do you stay sane in a world that’s living up to all of your worst expectations? 


        Searching for signs of sanity, escape, and the possibility of dreaming in Ace in the Hole is not an easy game to play. Kirk Douglas certainly doesn’t play Tatum as someone who’s entirely squared away with his brain. Douglas’ expressions in the film range from grim determination to unhingedly grim determination, and one gets the sense that Tatum’s every action is a direct result of obsessive, solipsistic calculations: What move will advance my career? What choice will result in more money, a higher status? He has no moral compass outside of his desire to serve himself. 

        One gets the sense that Tatum doesn’t dream when he sleeps. He lies down, blacks out, wakes up alert. He doesn’t imagine other worlds. He’s never woken up into a reality that’s been tinted slightly brighter thanks to a deep brush with surreal and fantastical hope. He’s missing whatever part of the brain daydreams, fantasizes. He sees nothing but the worst in his surroundings. 

        The uptight publisher he works for, Mr. Boot, is no better—he simply falls on the opposite end of the spectrum. His cross-stitched commands to TELL THE TRUTH (he has not one, but two of these in his office) reveal a mind with little imagination, a mind that—like the film’s cinematography—operates in black and white. No one can be that “good” and stay connected to something bigger, wilder, and more fantastic in the world—something that reminds you that binary choices are never the only ones, that life unfolds on a spectrum, not a two-sided coin. 

        Journalism, for Wilder in this film, does not offer any sort of escape or breath of sanity for the people writing or reading it. Much has been written about Ace in the Hole‘s cynicism towards the media, towards law enforcement—towards the human tendency to make other people’s pain and tragedy a spectator sport. Decades before reality television, Wilder understood the dark part of the soul that thrives on seeing other people fight, cry, hurt each other, drink too much, lash out, embarrass themselves, fail, lose, die. He saw the ways we invent stories to serve our own character arcs that end up rippling out into the lives of those around us, Gatsby-like, great but for the broken bodies washed up in our wakes. He perhaps overestimated how much viewers would enjoy watching a film forcing them to confront their own complicity in the very American cycles of capitalistic and hierarchical corruption—or perhaps he didn’t. Perhaps he never believed the movie would “succeed” with its viewers in that way. Watching the film, it’s easy to imagine him hoping he would piss people off with it. The film practically seethes with a tamped-down, barely-controlled misanthropic rage. 

        Sterling’s Lorraine, too, moves through the film in a trance of disillusionment and jaded hopelessness. Trapped by the store she hates, her gender, her unhappy marriage, her social status, and her own inability to believe in something bigger, Lorraine is a fitting, if troubling, counterpart to Tatum. She spits out one of the film’s most infamously cynical lines: “I don’t go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons.” (Ace in the Hole’s stance on religion needs a different essay to unpack; suffice it to say that Wilder seems to put Jesus’ ability to save in line with any other idealistic but illogical system of belief.)

        Although Lorraine is the only person in the film to actually get out of town—to wriggle out of the handcuffs of her circumstances—her departure is less of a transcendence than a collapse. A cave-in on the level of the soul. Back against the wall, neck in a stranglehold held by not one, but two men—Tatum pulling tight the vise of Leo’s anniversary gift, an ugly fur she hates and that, to her, represents everything keeping her from being the person she once imagined she’d be—she realizes: the only way out is through. She stabs him in the gut with scissors, a wound that he could have kept from being fatal had he not been so immersed in prideful obsession. We see her on her way out of town: a woman who could only creep out of the corner she’d been backed into by becoming something worse, something less human, something unattached from all hope or faith or promise. 


        When I walk away from my computer for five minutes, the pre-programmed landscape screensaver comes on. I love it. I watch the sand dunes and the glaciers and the forests glide slowly across the screen for longer than I need to. 

        Before my kids go to sleep, I lie down on the floor of their room and play nature sounds—crickets by a forest river, bird trills and thunderstorms, frogs by a waterfall. I close my eyes and imagine myself outside, pleasantly cold, face turned up to a darker sky. 

        The last place I went before we couldn’t go places anymore was Albuquerque. I was there for a work conference but I tried to grab a few hours to walk around, breathe in the specific New Mexico air, look at the mountains. I have traveled to and fallen in love with Taos, with Santa Fe. There’s an electricity in New Mexico that seems to connect person to land in a more vital and tangible way than anywhere else I’ve been, except maybe Yosemite. Perhaps I only felt it because, as a tourist, I was subconsciously looking for something like that. Perhaps it was real. 

        When I imagine making a movie in New Mexico I see the land unfolding before me like a note found tucked in the pages of a used book—a window looking out onto something beautiful from the walls of a deteriorating stronghold. 


        Wilder doesn’t give much voice to his indigenous characters, and, for the majority of the film, holds back from filming any sweeping vistas. Most of Wilder’s films are city films. His characters spark their repartee back and forth over bustling city sounds, in busy offices, down apartment hallways. Ace in the Hole’s cynical message would seem suited to such an environment—one of cutthroat ambition, where everyone’s trying to get ahead. But the film doesn’t take place in a city. It doesn’t even unfold in Albuquerque. Its action progresses miles outside of any real town, any real hub of residential or commercial life. This backdrop is, of course, a purposeful juxtaposition to Tatum’s ugly city morality—and a call to our own blindness to what really matters. It is also, I think, there to communicate a pretty radical message (for its time) about white America’s exploitation of the land and of indigenous people.

        As Tatum enters the offices of the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin for the first time, he passes a Native American employee and smirks an exaggerated “How” at him, complete with a condescending stereotypical hand gesture. “Good afternoon, sir,” says the man in return, without missing a beat. It’s one of our first glimpses of Tatum’s attitude towards others; that Wilder chose to highlight his superior attitude to an indigenous professional is no accident.

        Later in the film, we see glimpses of a family who prides themselves on being the “first” to the scene. (The YouTube commenter energy is palpable.) The couple has two boys, who dress up in feather headdresses and “Indian” costumes; Wilder’s framing of them calls to mind the way Bong Joon-ho shoots the similarly commercialized bastardization of native dress in Parasite. The effect is the same—a scathing condemnation of the upper-class blindness to the exploitation, oppression, and genocide that got them where they are today: on land they stole from others and no longer understand how to connect with.    

        One of Tatum’s early monologues is a paean to city living, a sneering dismissal of rural life that manages to be violent, misogynistic, arrogant, and ugly all at once: 

        You know what’s wrong with New Mexico, Mr. Wendell? Too much outdoors. Give me those eight spindly trees in front of Rockefeller Center any day. That’s enough outdoors for me. No subways smelling sweet-sour. What do you use for noise around here? No beautiful roar from eight million ants—fighting, cursing, loving. No shows. No South Pacific. No chic little dames across a crowded bar. And worst of all, Herbie, no 80th floor to jump from when you feel like it…When I came here, I thought this was gonna be a 30-day stretch, maybe 60. Now it’s a year. It looks like a life sentence. Where is it? Where’s the loaf of bread with a file in it? Where’s that big story to get me outta here? One year, and what’s our hot news? A soapbox derby. A tornado—that double-crossed us and went to Texas. An old goof who said he was the real Jesse James—until they found out he was a chicken thief from Gallup by the name of, uh, Schimmelmacher. I’m stuck here, fans. Stuck for good. Unless of course, you, Miss Deverich, instead of writing household hints about how to remove chili stains from blue jeans, get yourself involved in a trunk murder. How about it, Miss Deverich? I could do wonders with your dismembered body.

        As the empty land fills up with cars, and the quiet dissipates into carnival songs and radio announcements, the viewer feels a loss deeper than they would if the cars and radio announcements had already been there. The sign at the entrance to the region declaring “VISIT OLD INDIAN CLIFF DWELLINGS  /  450 YEARS OLD  /  OK TO TAKE PICTURES” changes its tune from “FREE” to “50¢” to “$1.00.” We are American. We take things that are sacred and beautiful and wring them dry to turn a profit, to buy a bigger house, to share a popular picture on social media. No, the “Indian curse” that Tatum invents is not real. But yes, Wilder seems to say, there was something holy about this place, its existence. There was something possible. 

        There was a window. 


        The last shot of Ace in the Hole is uncompromisingly bleak. It’s composed carefully and angrily. Tatum, having failed at absolutely everything he set out to do, having bled out slowly—both physically and morally—during the last act of the film, is back in the Albuquerque newspaper office, posturing and proud even in the final moments of his destructive life. He falls over, finally, his head blocking out nearly everything else from the frame. Wilder ends his film as claustrophobically as possible, giving viewers no escape from the capitalistic, self-serving hole he’s revealed us all to be trapped in. Yes, he says, we are all slowly suffocating on the dust of this country, on the oxygen-less air of American exceptionalism. No one is coming to drill us out. 

        That’s certainly how most of the movie feels: crowded, blind, heartless, repulsive. 

        But the people leave. The signs come down. The tents collapse. The drills stop. The cars drive away. And, yes, in the darkest sense, we feel the grief and desolation of Leo’s father, looking out one more time on the land that claimed his son. We feel the way everything sacred was ruined. We feel the weight of the litter on the ground, the remnants of a crowd feeding on other people’s pain, the loss of a historical site, the futile, insane way all of this happened for no reason. 

        But we also might feel something else. A breath. A breeze. An original pause. 

        Wilder may not believe in people, but does he believe in the land? Cliffs without voices, ground without vehicle tracks, sky without factory smoke, Earth without people. 

        Even if you give in to the voice telling you our worst expectations are real, even if you find yourself with your eyes screwed shut in bed at night understanding that the fantasies we were peddled are nothing more than that—fantasies, lies, veils over some essential evil—there are still stars overhead, mountains to the north, oceans waiting to finally swallow us, tall grasses to lie down in. There is still an Earth, and maybe it is better off without us. There are flowers and rocks and rushing lava. There are caves no one will ever find. Leo Minosa’s father might see it, standing alone amidst the vacuum of the circus that fed on his son until he could no longer breathe.

        A pause. An awe. An annihilating dream.

        By: The Editors
        Posted: September 28, 2020, 1:43 pm

        • Entertainer


          Shannan Watts lived a very online life. She posted videos of her beautiful family online with such regularity that one can get a sense of who she was as a person through the footage that’s publicly available through social media services. Realizing how much of Watts’ personality was right there online must have been the spark for the filmmakers of Netflix’s “American Murder: The Family Next Door” to devise their true crime documentary in a truly original way. There’s not a single talking-head interview or recreated event in this doc—every single image was either uploaded to the internet, taken by investigators, or text messaged from players involved. The result is a film that feels deeply personal, and not always in a good way. It’s a film that can’t help but feel a little like an invasion of privacy. Yes, Shannan agreed to post her life online, but that doesn’t mean she expected it to be dissected and analyzed after her tragic death, and the question of who gave approval for her text messages to become part of a film pushes the experience into something that feels exploitative at times. I’m sure Shannan’s family approved, but there’s always that question of how much stories like these should belong to the loved ones of the people involved and how much they should be exposed to the world. And I’m not sure this film always justifies its invasion of privacy.

          The counter to that would be that “American Murder” reveals how much an online persona can hide an unsettled life. The facts of this case aren’t really in question. It’s not one of those mysteries that people dissect on message boards or obsess about on podcasts. On August 13th, 2018, Shannan Watts came home from a work trip. Her husband Chris strangled his pregnant wife to death, burying her body near one of his work sites, and then dumped his two other children, who he had smothered to death, in an oil vat at the same scene. He was an absolute monster, and the theory is that he basically wanted to wipe away one family life so he could start another one with his mistress.

          Early body cam footage of Chris speaking to police officers in his home about where Shannan and the girls might be is arguably the most unsettling in the film. Mere hours earlier, this man watched the life come out of his wife’s eyes and brutally killed his daughters, and he’s there pretending to be concerned about where his family might be, caught on camera talking to cops. It’s a great example of the dead-eyed manner in which sociopaths can move through this world. He’s remarkably calm and believable. It’s scary. (In fact, he's too calm. If my wife and kids were gone, I'd be in full-blown panic, and the cops must have been instantly suspicious at his lack of emotion.)

          “American Murder” cuts back and forth between August 13th and the investigation of the next few days with footage from Facebook and text messages about what might have led Chris to that point. Much of it focuses on the increasingly poor sex life between Chris and Shannan, which led her to believe he was cheating (he was), but I’m not sure what is gained by seeing personal text messages from Shannan about her lack of intimacy with her husband. And it’s a beat that the filmmakers hit too often, almost as if they’re reaching hard for the “why” of this case, trying to figure out what led Chris to such a horrible decision, but invading Shannan’s privacy to do so.  

          More successful is the amount of time director Jenny Popplewell devotes to showing the interrogation of Watts after a failed lie detector test. It’s interesting to see the detectives push at Chris, pulling his story from different directions until it falls apart. Those who like procedural investigative docs should watch the interrogation here. It’s really well done, especially as they push at his emotional buttons, even bringing in Chris’ father to be someone to whom Chris could finally confess.

          As a big true crime fan, people often ask me why the genre is so popular, and I think the theory that it’s rubber-necking or morbid is dead wrong. I think it actually provides a strange, even subconscious sense of comfort for most fans. The bad guys on “Dateline NBC” are almost always caught. And the stories almost always unfold in a “that couldn’t happen to me” way. My husband isn’t cheating. My husband isn’t abusive. Most crimes are committed by people the victim knows and I don’t know a murderer. They provide a sense of safety by othering crime. One thing I will say about “American Murder” is that it does the opposite of this, reminding one of the banality of evil. The potential of it is everywhere. Even in the family next door. 

          Available on Netflix Wednesday, September 30th.

          By: Brian Tallerico
          Posted: September 28, 2020, 1:42 pm

        • image

          Two kids from the muddy outskirts of London, hired through a burner phone, travel to a dilapidated apartment building under the pretense of killing a pedophile. But there’s something they don’t know until it’s too late: The man they’ve been hired to kill is Finn Wallace (Colm Meaney). For 20 years, Finn has sat at the head of the underworld table. His assassination at the hands of two nobodies not only creates a power vacuum among the city’s many gangland factions, but angers his temperamental son Sean (Joe Cole) to seek justice. In creators Gareth Evans and Matt Flannery’s visceral AMC show “Gangs of London”—five of the nine hour-long episodes were screened for review—a saga of criminal intrigue mixes ruthless action sequences with even more ruthless crime lords.

          By its very name, "Gangs of London" draws comparisons to Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York.” But the two are only comparable in the sense that, like any other gangster flick, the show depicts a new generation trying to carve out what’s theirs while defending their father’s sins. In that spirit, while “The Godfather” begins with a wedding, “Gangs of London” opens with a funeral. Sean, unlike the peacemaking Don Corleone, is mercilessly working to consolidate even more power. The Wallaces control everything. Their name can literally be found painted across the city skyline, as they’ve taken the expected tradition of mobsters owning construction companies to new heights by erecting skyscrapers and using the large building projects as money laundering shells. 

          As Sean’s confidant and business partner, Alex (Paapa Essiedu) explains, “Everything is a shell.” For instance, a woman like the Kurdish militant Lale (Narges Rashidi) can own a convenience store and use its bowels as a nerve center for her men to smuggle cash by stuffing it into Fruit Loop boxes. In fact, “Gangs of London” is a globetrotting series, leaping across the map from Turkey to Nigeria, with every location holding a secret concerning the ulterior motives of each gangster.    

          In a world teeming with betrayal, Sean trusts very few people beyond his family, which includes a sister (Valene Kane) estranged from their quick and lethal mother Marian (Michelle Fairley), and a wayward brother Billy (Brian Vernel)—who much like the dynamic between Fredo and Michael Corleone—who desperately wants to prove to his brother that he can help. In conjunction with the Wallaces is the Dumani family. While the aforementioned Alex runs the business side, his wary father Ed (Lucian Msamati) once acted as a confidant to Finn, and now not only monitors the Wallaces, but Alex’s interior designing sister Shannon (Pippa Bennett-Warner) too. Due to Finn’s assassination, the bonds once holding these families together begin to fray from distrust, backstabbing, and the unsettling secrets Finn himself held from everybody.        


          This is the world that Elliot (Sope Dirisu)—an undercover cop trying to break into Sean’s inner-circle—walks into. A bruiser who cares for his disabled ex-boxing father, Elliot punches his way up the underworld ladder. First by helping Sean to uncover Finn’s murderer, then by quelling the many gangland factions, big and small, rising against the Wallaces. In fact, whether it’s Lale, the Albanian mafia chief—who Sean most suspects of murdering his dad—Luan (Orli Shuka) or the Pakistani heroin kingpin Asif (Asif Raza Mir), each episode opens with a new crime boss taking their swing. In a stream of exhilarating action sequences where hand-to-hand combat matches stylistic camerawork (the showrunners haven’t met a canted angle they didn’t like), Elliot brawls against assassins and henchmen alike. “Gangs of London” is a gruesome crime series where every cracking bone is heard and every ounce of blood is spilled.

          And yet the show always returns to the theme of youth maneuvering against experience. Elliot doesn’t want to be his punch-drunk father, Asif’s son is distancing himself from corruption by ironically running for mayor, and Alex finds his father’s apathetic tactics outdated. But it’s Sean trying to prove the most to his enemies, his mother, and the ghost of his dad. As one character observes, “A boy like him would burn cities just to convince the world he’s a man.” And Sean, who does burn everything in his wake, since he was a child, has worked to prove himself a man. 

          In a flashback scene that summarizes the entire series, Finn hands his two pre-teen sons rifles and leads them into the woods. They come upon a steel bucket planted upside down in the ground. When Finn lifts the pail, he reveals the bloody head of a man. He orders Sean to finish the job and murder the buried enemy. The lesson: kill or be killed. And though later in life everyone fears the violently impulsive Sean, a young man visually defined by his sometimes pitch-black eyes, the new mob leader still struggles to kill. The instinct toward mercy undoes many of these characters as much as any of their murderous acts. They have no choice. They must kill. Such conclusions would undo most series, but this one doesn’t really believe that no choice exists. Instead, “Gangs of London” is a bold continuation of the mafia movie tradition, yet like the inexperienced figures at its center, the show carves its own enthralling path.

          Five episodes screened for review.

          By: Robert Daniels
          Posted: September 28, 2020, 1:43 pm

          • Entertainer
            Entertainer published a blog post Ava


            The Jessica Chastain vehicle "Ava" is not the movie you expect it to be, and that's the source of its weaknesses as well as its strengths. 

            In the abstract, "Ava" looks like it wants to be another female-driven action/spy thriller in the vein of "Atomic Blonde." Set in glamorous international cities where targets need snuffing out, "Ava" mixes family drama; black comedy; luscious shots of four-star hotel suites, lobbies, and bars; and coldblooded espionage euphemisms that are meant to separate killers from their feelings (assassins tasked with murdering strangers are described as executives closing deals). 

            Yes, there is bloody action and plenty of it, though unfortunately it's been directed by Tate Taylor ("The Help") in the now-seemingly-mandatory handheld, cut-cut-cut style of post-Bourne action pictures. The only satisfying sequence is a close-quarters fight near the end that goes on and on until it becomes horrific, then exhausting, then funny. "I'm a bit rusty," one combatant admits, blood streaming from his face. 

            But on the other hand—and here's where "Ava" will lose viewers looking for the usual—the film's heart belongs to its non-action scenes: a succession of simply staged face-offs between Chastain's Ava, a recovering alcoholic and former teenaged delinquent, and supporting characters portrayed by the likes of Geena Davis, Common, Joan Chen, Jess WeixlerJohn Malkovich, and other performers skilled enough that they can make words sting like slaps. (Ioan Gruffudd, a handsome actor who's often cast as the slightly dull heroic lead, even shows up for couple of scenes as a scuzzbag money-mover, and seems to relish being free of the burden of nobility.) 

            The movie starts by establishing Ava as a talented but unstable "executive." She's beloved by her grizzled mentor Duke (John Malkovich), a self-described father figure who has replaced the bad biological dad who died when Ava was still a drunk. But she's recently become a problem employee, thanks to her habit of getting her targets right where she wants them, then pressing them to confess a bad thing that they've done before she "closes" them. Obviously this is evidence of a latent moral streak that's bubbling up in Ava after years of being tactically suppressed—and it's bad for business. Another of Duke's trainees, Simon (a razor-sharp Colin Farrell, playing a murderous family man with a pornstar mustache and side-walled pompadour), is a rising star who's being groomed as Duke's replacement. He warns Duke that Ava has screwed up too often, and is on deck to get "closed" by another "executive." Duke repeatedly covers for Ava, but it seems like it''s only a matter of time before her bill comes due. Will Duke be able to save her?

            From there, "Ava" never completely loses interest in its spy-world plot, but it becomes increasingly apparent that the actors and filmmakers seem more personally invested in scenes where the characters talk to each other, turning over unfinished personal business and picking at each other's emotional scabs. As I sit here writing this review, I'm having a hard time remembering any of the action scenes, except for that last fight. But I have a photographic recall for all the scenes where Ava—who's been AWOL from her family's life due to substance abuse treatment and, well, being an assassin—visits her ill mother Bobbi (Davis) in the hospital and reconnects with her estranged sister Judy (Wexler) and her husband Michael (Common). 

            There's plainly some kind of secret, probably mortifying connection between Ava and Michael (you can tell by the way they look at each other) that'll be revealed in due time. Even more impressive is Ava's relationship with her mother. The two can barely open their mouths without hurting each other, and Matthew Newton's script has a keen ear for little throwaway lines that reveal dysfunction—as when Ava stands on a chair to fix a TV in Bobbi's hospital room, and instead of "Thank you," Bobbi says "Guess there was nothing wrong with it."

            The strongest scene in the film is a game of hearts between Ava and her mother, played out at a small table against a window. Davis' presence in the movie at first seems like a clever bit of meta-minded stunt casting (26 years earlier, she starred in "The Long Kiss Goodnight," an ahead-of-its-time, "Ava"-like, crash-and-burn action flick about a female assassin named Charley Baltimore; Chastain's wig in the first scene seems deliberately Charley-esque). But it soon becomes clear that Davis is in the cast because she's a great actress and movie star. Bobbi dances around catharsis, refusing to give Ava the openness she craves, then unexpectedly reversing herself, the floodgates opening up. Chastain hangs back, letting Davis take the scene; what else can you do when your acting partner is doing some of the best work of her life? The actresses are so real here, and in all of the other Ava-Bobbi scenes, that you momentarily forget that this is the kind of film where people kill each other barehanded.  

            There's also a rich (though underdeveloped) sub-theme having to do with addiction. Many characters in "Ava" are either addicts or in recovery, for everything from alcohol and drugs to gambling. It's implied that the endorphin rush of extreme risk and sudden violence can amplify or partially replace whatever the assassins might get (or do) elsewhere. Conversations between Duke and Simon make it clear that so-called "black ops" organizations purposefully recruit addicted or addictive people because, having experienced chaos or still being in the middle of it, the recruits crave direction, attention, and approval. Even outwardly "normal" agency employees like Simon, with his big house and loving children, has a nihilistic or destructive streak that needs to be satisfied. And most of the ground-level killers like Ava and Joan Chen's Toni are fringe-dwellers, existing in the margins of respectable society or beneath their radar (far beneath, in Toni's case; she manages a secret nightclub and sex club with a hidden entrance disguised as a portable toilet). 

            "Ava" was marketed, half-assedly and without press screenings, as a hard-edged thriller with tons of gunplay and hand-to-hand combat, reminiscent of the intermittently excellent action pictures that Charlize Theron began to star in after turning 40. Whatever her motivation for saying yes to "Ava," Chastain (who also coproduced) deserves credit for backing a project that does its own thing, seemingly without regard for what the audience wants, capped with an ending that will prompt "What the hell was that?" reactions. If the action and espionage elements were executed at the same level as the dramatic and comedic exchanges and the observations about the types of people drawn to this life, "Ava" might've been a cult classic. 

            By: Matt Zoller Seitz
            Posted: September 26, 2020, 5:13 pm

            • Entertainer
              Entertainer published a blog post Shortcut


              Fair-minded leniency is hard to come by when you’re judging a high-concept horror movie that’s as pokey as “Shortcut,” especially given its tentative similarities with “Jeepers Creepers 2,” another horror movie about teenagers who are trapped and terrorized by a humanoid bat monster. Granted, a lot of American indie horror movies are distractingly self-referential, and “Shortcut” is not exceptional. Unfortunately, “Shortcut” is also not strong enough to be worth defending, even if you were to ignore its similarities to that other movie (which has, for many horror fans, understandably become radioactive given director Victor Salva’s now infamous arrest and conviction on charges of pedophilia and child pornography).

              Based solely on its own merits, “Shortcut” is both an amateurish production and a mindless genre exercise. Its creators show only a cursory interest in their characters, whose water-taffy-thin personalities are stretched out in tortuous dialogue and voiceover narration that’s neither worthy nor surmountable for the movie’s game but inexperienced younger cast members. So while you may not think that there should be much to a high-concept creature feature/teen melodrama like “Shortcut,” the movie itself suggests that there ought to be.

              Failing that, a higher level of narrative and/or filmmaking craftsmanship would have been appreciated, especially in a movie that begins with aggressively bland voiceover narration—“Every journey has its road. And every road, sooner or later, comes to a crossing.”—and only ends after nice guy Nolan (Jack Kane) observes that “No one believed our story or took us seriously.” I can’t blame ‘em—whoever ‘em are—given that Nolan and his classmates are never really defined or threatened by anything or anybody worth writing home about.

              Nolan’s one of five students who, during a routine drive through the British countryside, is beset by unexpected perils, like fallen timber, a serial killer known as “The Tongue Eater” (Daniel Keyes), and oh yeah, a man-sized bat creature. These generic obstacles negligibly obstruct the go-nowhere trajectory of Nolan and his equally unmemorable buddies, all of whom are defined by the sort of creaky clichés that make “The Breakfast Club” seem downright avant garde. There’s Reggie (Zak Sutcliffe), a pouty rebel with a side shave and Doc Martens-looking boots, and Karl (Zander Emlano), the bratty, but good-natured fat kid who day-dreams about “double bacon, french fries … and a large drink”. As for young women: there’s nerdy Queenie (Molly Dew), who’s got baby fat and braces, and shy artiste Bess (Sophie Jane Oliver), whom Nolan inevitably draws the inner beauty out of (“I saw your sketches on the bus, I thought they were amazing”). All five kids must fend for themselves after kindly bus driver Joseph (Terence Anderson) leaves them with some bumper sticker wisdom—be brave, kids!—and little else.

              The bat monster that hounds these kids looks cool enough, but he never really shakes his kiddy opponents up, armed as they are with hormones and courage and stuff. To be fair, Nolan’s crew has to fend off the world’s most boring bat creature, sleepy backstory and all. So I can’t really blame these kids for taking their time in poking around their bus’s nearby surroundings. Some sketchy sex jokes follow, like when Reggie shoots Karl a dirty look after Emlano’s character repeatedly (and vigorously) slaps his thigh in the dark. Or how about when Reggie teasingly threatens to watch Queenie urinate when she asks him to guard her from predators, like that Tongue Guy? (What’s his deal anyway?) Come to think of it, Reggie’s as close to a representative protagonist as “Shortcut” has got since he’s more of a placeholder than a symbol of youthful rebellion.

              As for Nolan and Bess: screenwriter Daniele Cosci makes nothing of the fact that these two lovebirds are stalked by a hairy howler called “The Nocturnal Wanderer”’ on the night of a lunar eclipse. Nolan and Bess’s attraction is also as credible as Reggie and Queenie’s love connection, defined as it is by Reggie’s characteristic suavitude: “You are kinda cute when you're mad ... should piss you off more.” Even the most talented young actors can only do so much with wet blanket dialogue like when Nolan and Bess struggle to make a love connection, but only wind up saying things like, “My mum painted,” and “Like what,” and “All sorts of landscapes[…]with bluest sea, and amazing white sand.” Who thought that dialogue was ready to be filmed?

              Or maybe a better question is: what exactly attracted the filmmakers to material like “Shortcut”? I’ve seen the film, and I’m still not sure. Maybe it’s the generations-old received wisdom that teenagers are more resilient than we think they are? Sure, but who exactly is “we” these days? “Throwback” would be a more accurate title for “Shortcut,” but even that doesn’t quite cover the movie’s retrograde nostalgia.

              Now playing in theaters and select drive-ins.

              By: Simon Abrams
              Posted: September 25, 2020, 12:41 pm

              • Entertainer


                In 2018, famous London-based restauranteur and cookbook author Yotam Ottolenghi was contacted by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art with an unusual proposal—create a display of elaborate pastries inspired by what might have been served up during the heyday of the court of Versailles for a one-day event as part of their then-current “Visions of Versailles” exhibit. He agreed and as plans came together for the big day, filmmaker Laura Gabbert was there to document everything. The resulting film, “Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles,” sounds interesting in theory and certainly looks good throughout. But in its attempt to cram too many narratives and subjects into too short of a running time, it ends up coming across as both overstuffed and oddly undernourished.

                To assist in this effort, Ottolenghi recruits a veritable Murderer’s Row of ambitious patissiers from around the world to create exhibits that will bring together the storied culinary history of Versailles with their own cutting-edge approaches. Perhaps the most famous of the group is Dominique Ansel, the man best known for inventing the cronut. Ghaya Oliveira is a chocolate expert from Tunisia who is the executive pastry chef at the exclusive New York restaurant Daniel. The British duo of Bompas and Parr have had their elaborate jelly creations Instagrammed throughout the world. From Singapore, Janice Wong is known for intricately detailed pieces of “edible art” and plans on using her skills to design an elaborately detailed recreation of the garden of Versailles. Ukrainian baker Dinara Kasko creates astonishing cakes designed using principles that she learned from when she was originally studying to become an architect.

                So the basic concept of the exhibit is sort of interesting, the personalities assembled to bring it to life certainly are, and the end results of their work are spectacular to behold (even though intrinsic sensations of taste and smell cannot be replicated in the context of a film). The problem with the film is that it has a running time of only 75 minutes and by trying to cram all of those elements, not to mention historical explorations of Versailles from a food-oriented perspective, such a short running time means that Gabbert gives each one a too-brief and ultimately superficial treatment. One of the great things about a film like this is that it offer viewers the chance to actually learn something on a subject they may have never even thought about before seeing it. By racing through everything, I never got the sense that I was really learning anything of value or substance.

                Watching the film rush through everything, it occurred to me that it might have been much more effective as a limited series with perhaps each chef getting an episode dedicated to their differing approaches and creative processes, along with an episode revolving around Versailles and what it continues to stir the imagination today, and a final episode centered on the exhibit itself. As it is, only two scenes are genuinely memorable, in part because they aren’t overly rushed. One is, of course, the final unveiling of the exhibit—not surprising because if that doesn’t work, you clearly have no movie. The other is an anger-inducing sequence in which an observer in the kitchen insists that Kasko add cocoa butter to her batter to help with a problem she is having despite her insistence that it will not work. He gets his way, she turns out to be right and has to rework things while he just goes off.

                “Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles” is the kind of thing that some people might describe as “food porn.” If that's the case, it's of a decidedly soft-core nature. Whatever its initial ambitions might have been, the end result is ultimately little more than a slightly super-sized episode of one of those slightly ludicrous shows in which the construction of fondant-based creations is presented with the kind of tension usually associated with the bridge crossing sequence in “Sorcerer.” For some people, that will be more than enough. As for me, when the film came to an end, I found myself hungry for a piece of cake and a better movie.

                Now in select theaters and on demand.

                By: Peter Sobczynski
                Posted: September 25, 2020, 12:42 pm

                • Entertainer
                  Entertainer published a blog post Foster Boy


                  “Look into my eyes so you know what it’s like to live a life not knowing what a normal life’s like.”

                  Among its many cathartic functions, art provides us with a safe space to articulate our experiences of trauma that we’d normally avoid discussing out loud. Few recent films have portrayed this as indelibly as Destin Daniel Cretton’s 2013 masterwork, “Short Term 12,” which was based on the writer/director’s own experiences of working with troubled teens at a foster care facility. The scene quoted above in which young Marcus (Lakeith Stanfield) performs his achingly personal rap song about not having a place in the world has more power than the entirety of “Foster Boy,” Youssef Delara’s frustrating new courtroom drama. There’s no question the picture is fraught with good intentions. It was produced by Peter Samuelson, who runs a nonprofit that provides foster children with college readiness programs, and it was written by Jay Paul Deratany, a lawyer with an impressive legacy of targeting foster care negligence. A skim through the film’s official site offers ample insights into the insidiously corrupt for-profit foster care industry, which views the wrongful placement of children in abusive homes as an incentive for making more money.

                  This urgent material is obviously worthy of being given the filmic treatment, but as Roger Ebert famously wrote, it’s not what a film is about, but how it is about it. Naming this movie “Foster Boy” is as misleading as naming Peter Farrelly’s widely maligned Best Picture-winner “Green Book,” since both films fail to truly be about what their titles suggest. It’s reasonable to assume that the main character of Delara’s film would be Jamal (a woefully underutilized Shane Paul McGhie), a man wracked with PTSD from the years of abuse he endured in nightmarish foster homes that robbed him of his childhood. He intends on suing the social services corporation that willfully turned a blind eye to his suffering while lining their pockets in the process. Alas, Judge Taylor (Louis Gossett Jr.) deems Jamal unfit to represent himself in court, and decides on the spur of the moment to assign corporate lawyer Michael (Matthew Modine) to work for him pro bono. It’s not long before Michael’s scenes dominate the screen time, rendering Jamal’s wrenching backstory—glimpsed only in disjointed flashbacks—as an afterthought.

                  Yes, this is yet another contrived would-be crowdpleaser about an insufferable white man whose unlikely bond with a Black man inspires him to become a better person. Though I don’t recall the word “racist” being uttered once throughout the course of the picture, that is what Michael unmistakably is from the get-go, as he dismisses Jamal as a “thug” purely on the basis of his appearance, while condescending to a Black colleague, Keisha (Lex Scott Davis), after ignoring her for months. Michael also has a curious form of OCD he demonstrates in his first scene, as he adjusts four white cups on his kitchen counter, an illustration of white privilege worthy of a Wayans Brothers comedy. This becomes an inadvertently amusing running gag when we later see him adjusting a painting in his ex-wife’s home without being asked. Even more perplexing is Michael’s ineptitude as a lawyer, which makes one wonder how he obtained such high-powered corporate clients in the first place. He initially puts forth no effort to understand or empathize with Jamal, tossing him on the witness stand and badgering him with sensitive questions until the poor soul snaps. So spiteful and sloppy is his courtroom conduct that he even forgets to authenticate documents before introducing them as evidence.

                  And yet, we’re supposed to grow to like Michael because his prejudice is contrasted with that of the villains at social services, who are portrayed as broadly as the evil liberals in “God’s Not Dead.” Only when confronted by their sociopathic vice president of claims, Pamela (Julie Benz), does Michael abruptly change his tune, arguing that “kids aren’t products,” as if taking on this case will suddenly redeem him for all the soulless corporations he’s defended in the past, enabling him to amass his fortune. In light of the profound reckoning with our nation’s history of systemic racism that has characterized this year, triggered in part by a pandemic that has primarily impacted people of color, it’s especially dated to have a white lawyer deliver an Atticus Finch-style speech where he comforts his Black client by “wrapping him with” the U.S. Constitution, a document replete with loopholes that ensure racial subjugation. Rather than explore the complex challenges of being Black in America, the film spends far too much time focusing on the hackneyed plot developments that lead to Michael’s endangerment. In order to dissuade him from continuing with the case, Pamela and her sinister henchmen resort to the mischief of any run-of-the-mill shadow organization: they strip Michael of his corporate clients, jam his phone, try running him over with a car, etc. They even manage to stick Jamal in the same cell as his rapist, an eye-rolling twist that would’ve been more potent had either character been sufficiently developed in the script. 

                  By the time we finally arrive at the moving scene where Jamal opens up about the crimes committed against him, performing verses he had written in journals as a mode of coping with the trauma, it is too little too late. In a maddening flourish, Jamal’s tearful monologue is accompanied by the hokey swell of a non-diegetic score, a layer of artifice that does little more than distract from how effective an actor McGhie is in conveying his character’s raw agony on his own terms. After a pat resolution in which all the formulaic cogs click into place at the expected time, we are faced with a title card informing us that of the half a million children currently in foster care, over forty percent of them will end up “homeless, incarcerated or die within three years of leaving the foster care system.” These children are sorely deserving of having this injustice be addressed in a film that doesn’t upstage their plight with the hollow heroics of a white savior. Had the filmmakers put forth the effort to view the story through Jamal’s eyes, they may have had a worthy cinematic counterpart to their noble off-camera achievements. 

                  In theaters & VOD on September 25th

                  By: Matt Fagerholm
                  Posted: September 25, 2020, 12:42 pm

                  • Entertainer


                    A sort of “Marvel for Pre-Teens who Don’t Like Actual Superheroes,” the latest original offering from Disney Plus won’t make anywhere near as many headlines as “Hamilton” or “Mulan” did when they landed on the service. My most common feeling while watching it was one of surprise that it even exists, presuming it must have been designed as a long pilot for a TV series that never went to order on Disney Channel and is now being shuffled off to the streaming service, because nothing about this inert, dull project feels like a movie. It’s a half-idea, half-heartedly filmed. Yes, it’s a kids’ movie, but kids are smarter in 2020 about their action entertainment and putting this alongside all the Marvel movies on Disney Plus feels almost mean.

                    Peyton Elizabeth Lee is charming enough as Sam, the second-born princess in a royal family in the Kingdom of Illyria. If you’re expecting some sort of Narnia-esque vision of fantasy royalty, look elsewhere because the vision here is pretty much superficial. It’s a modern, slightly futuristic city, but “world-building” was literally never put on the whiteboard of the writer’s room for this project. Sam goes to school at a place called Strathmore with other royal teens and the opening act of “Secret Society of Second-Born Royals” (and doesn’t that title just roll off the tongue?) is basically a teen dramedy as the film introduces us to Sam’s friend Mike (Noah Lomax) and a vain mean girl named Roxana (Olivia Deeble).

                    Suddenly, Sam learns that she has an important destiny a la Harry/Katniss/Neo/etc. It turns out that second-born royals in this universe have superpowers, and so “SSSBR” shifts to what is essentially a young X-Men riff with Sam learning her powers under the tutelage of Professor James Morrow (Skylar Astin). Each student’s power reveals itself through a series of training exercises, and Sam learns that she has super senses. Her fellow second-borns, who have apparently all hit X-puberty at the same time, include invisible girl Roxana, power-stealing January (Isabella Blake-Thomas), persuasive Tuma (Niles Fitch), and nature-controlling Matteo (Faly Rakotohavana). The quintet is trained to control their powers just as the film’s Magneto, a telekinetic inmate baddie (Greg Bryk), escapes from his prison and comes after the school.

                    To say that Anna Mastro’s film has a pacing problem would be a drastic understatement. The opening chapter is fine enough because it allows Lee to carry the teen drama, but everything grinds to a halt in the midsection with a lengthy, boring training sequence. Imagine if the first X-Men film was an hour of the characters learning their powers. It’s numbing in a way that’s inexplicable other than to suggest it would feel different in a pilot of a series than it does as the majority of a feature film. It’s a film that just takes forever to get off the ground, running for an hour before anything approaching traditional superhero movie action happens, and even then it’s clunky and poorly done.

                    To say that I didn’t care about what happened to anyone in “Secret Society of Second-Born Royals” would imply that anything happens in the film. It is the most bare-bones superhero movie I’ve ever seen, entirely unambitious in its world-building, characters, and structure. The only thing that salvages it in any way is the relative charm of the cast. Lee could develop into a star, and I could see some of the other young actors doing the same. But they gotta stop signing on to second-tier projects.

                    Now available on Disney+.

                    By: Brian Tallerico
                    Posted: September 25, 2020, 12:42 pm


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