In Cristian Mungui's film Graduation, a Romanian-born physician returns to his native country with his family, including his teenage daughter. On the eve of sitting for an exam to win a scholarship to a British university, the girl is attacked by a would-be rapist. With her arm in a cast, and her confidence eroded, the “certainty” of the exam’s outcome is in doubt. The daughter isn’t sure she wants to move to Britain and leave her friends, family and country behind. To the dad, however a rock through his apartment window, a smashed windshield, and his daughter’s assault are symptomatic of everything wrong in Romanian society. He is certain his daughter must get away from all this, and when he manipulates his hospital’s transplant list to “smooth things along,” he becomes part of the corruption he condemns.
In Nacho Vigalando's film, Colossal, when a failed writer is ousted from her boyfriend’s apartment for her non-stop drinking, she returns to her parent’s empty house in New Hampshire to continue her legacy of empty bottles. A former classmate warmly greets her arrival, but she can’t recall knowing him “back then.” No matter, she willingly accepts the guy’s used furniture, and a job in his tavern where the regulars who sit at the bar serve as the Greek chorus for the rom-com goings-on. Meanwhile, over in Korea, a gigantic monster is single-handedly destroying Seoul. Strangely, the monster has the same quirky mannerisms displayed by the girl who lives so far away. Can there be a connection? Is the monster a giant metaphor? Is this movie fresh and exciting and fun to watch? Yes, yes, and yes!
In Mission Control: Th Unsung Heroes of Apollo, British documentary filmmaker David Fairhead blends archival footage, talking head interviews and CGI reconstructions to tell the nail-biting reality of NASA’s quest to land on the moon. The real-life faces are different from those of actors with the same names in Ron Howard’s astounding 1995 film, Apollo 13, but just like actor Ed Harris did in that movie, space mission flight director Gene Krantz wears his signature tie and vest in the Control Room. Following close to last years Unsung Heroes film about female, African-American NASA mathematicians, Mission Control looks like a whites-only boy’s club, so Fairhead begins and ends his film with shots showing that some modern-day controllers are women.
In today’s high-tech world, spiritual mediums no longer have to consult a crystal globe in a dark room. Instead, they just tap an app icon to communicate with dead people by smart-phone. In this film, a spiritualist pays her bills by being a "Professional shopper" for a Scandinavian actress, while spending the rest of her time waiting for her dead brother to make contact. He died young from a heart attack, and, according to his sister, was also a medium. So when a series of invasive text messages appear, she thinks they are from her dead brother, while any other intelligent woman would think they are from a hacker/stalker. So the disbelief suspended for an audience to enjoy the grief and languid ennui Kristen Stewart presents under Olivier Assayas direction depends on how paranoid you are about using your smart phone.
Stand-up comic and former “Red Diaper Baby” Josh Kornbluth has grown up so much in Love and Taxes, that he’s actually going to pay his income taxes and become (horror of horrors), “part of the system!” I’ve appreciated Kornbluth’s wry whimsy ever since he played the “temp guy” secretary who is covertly writing a novel at work in Haiku Tunnel (2001). In fact, Kornbluth’s lifelong battle against the IRS began when he became a “perm” (permanent employee) at the same San Francisco law firm where he was as a “temp.” As a result, many of the supporting roles are played by the same actors from the original film. One new face is former U.S. Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, playing a former I.R.S. Commissioner. I admit that Kornbluth’s style of acting is as unkempt as his clothing, but I really like the guy (and hope you will too).
2017's Critics Award at the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival i s bookended by the universal theme of music as a catalyst for cultural revival, Tommie Dell Smith captures the irrepressible fiddler Alasdair Fraser’s global odyssey from his native Scotland to California and on to Spain, by honoring the transformational power of both music and film in her toe-tappingly beautiful, The Groove Is Not Trivial.
Larry Wilcox “disavows any knowledge “ of the actions in this film. Wilcox starred as Jon Baker, the blonde, motorcycle-riding, California Highway Patrolman in the kid-friendly, ’77-’83 TV show of the same name. His partner, Ponch Poncherello was played by Erik Estrada—the same guy in the TV infomercials who tried to sell us “affordable” 1-acre lots in “incredible” California Pines. In this new, so-called comedy version of CHIPS, Groundlings and Punk’d alumni Dax Shepard directs and plays Jon, while Michael Pena is Ponch. Despite Shepard’s wife, Kristen Bell, playing the female lead, this movie is miles away from being family-friendly. Ponch is an undercover FBI agent investigating dirty cops, and with every woman being disrespected by the foul-mouthed, chauvanist pigs onscreen, there’s lots of sexist, scatological dirtiness going around.
If you wonder why Disney made a live-action version of their animated classic, the simple answer is “money.” Not content with the largesse collected from hastily-made direct to video sequels, a Broadway musical, and live-actor productions at their theme parks and even ice shows, we have this overly-hyped live-action version. Ignoring the mores and conventions of 18th Century France or 1991 America, this “updated” story must have a girl-power heroine that will resonate with today’s kids. The clunkiest transition from the original is the Beast himself. Provided with a new song and flashback illustrating his childhood love for his dying mom, he still comes across as an abusive bully. Bottom line? This overly-long, live-action Beauty and the Beast provides nostalgic fascination for people who cherish the 1991 classic, and may appeal to youngsters who don’t pay too much attention. For the rest of us, the new songs detract from the story and the whole thing has an “attach that idea with a Post-It note” feel.
Mixing iconic images from both Jurassic Park and Apocalypse Now, in Kong: Skull Island, helicopters with teams of soldiers, scientists and journalists onboard fly towards a lush jungle island. Suddenly, an immense ape reaches up and swats the whirlybirds out of the sky and we are thrust into King Kong. The filmmakers and FX artists dutifully provide all of the giant ape tropes from Merian C. Cooper’s 1933 original: blond beauty bonds with hairy beast; cold-blooded dinosaurs battle warm-blooded primate; scientists and photographers continue recording facts and data in the face of certain death; etc. etc.. And then there are the homages to Francis Ford Coppola’s take on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with the aforementioned helicopter arrival, soldiers silhouetted against a bright orange sunset, and a shell-shocked Army Colonel who goes ape himself when confronted with an unbeatable enemy. Despite the fact that there are enough characters to sink this tiny little island, this is an impressive piece of popcorn entertainment—made even better if you recognize the dozens of film references scattered throughout.
In a refreshing change of pace, boyfriends aren’t the focus of Ry Russo-Young’s movie of Lauren Oliver’s popular novel. Like the classic movie Groundhog Day, the protagonist is forced to relive the same event over and over. Only this time, the stakes are much higher, for the Friday redux always ends in a catastrophic crash. Zoey Deutch is excellent as Samantha, the high school girl trapped in the continuous time loop in which both she and the audience focus on different details each time—looking for the one little thing that might alter the outcome. Hats off to Russo-Young and her editor Joe Landauer for the nuanced changes each time the events are re-lived.