REVIEW: “Lost Girls” (2020)

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Director Liz Garbus is known for her documentaries. She makes her dramatic feature film debut on Netflix with “Lost Girls” and her transition is nearly seamless. Her film is based on a nonfiction book by Robert Kolker which highlighted five sex workers who were murdered by the yet unidentified Long Island serial killer. The film (written for the screen by Michael Werwie) focuses on one mother and her pursuit of the truth following the disappearance of her daughter.

Amy Ryan plays Mari Gilbert, a coarse and world-weary single mother who works multiple jobs to make ends meet. Life is hard for Mari who struggles to afford medication for her schizophrenic youngest daughter Sarra (Oona Laurence) while mending her strained relationship with her oldest Shannon. Her middle daughter Sherre (delicately and tenderly played by Thomasin McKenzie) often finds herself lost in the shuffle but she still stands by her mom regardless of how rough things may get.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

The true story of Mari Gilbert was sad and tragic. The movie conveys much of that but does minimize its focus on a specific time window. Shannon disappears while working as an escort in the Oak Beach area of Long Island but not before making a harrowing 911 call. Having her fill of the local police department’s apathy and incompetence,  a rightfully angry and determined Mari fiercely pushes back, forcing the guilt-ridden commissioner (Gabriel Byrne) to reevaluate the case.

Ryan’s performance is raw and ferocious, authentically portraying a woman fueled by pain and indignation. But her Mari is also full of complexities. She loves her girls but we learn several ugly secrets yanked from her true story. It makes her an uncomfortable protagonist but still very much a sympathetic one. It’s easy to have empathy for her and her daughters especially when looking at them through the lens of class and social hardships. But Garbus and Werwie add dimensions that firmly root her in reality.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

And I can’t say enough about Thomasin McKenzie. She has already left strong impressions in “Leave No Trace” and “Jojo Rabbit”. Here she’s given a much different role but brings the same earnest, softhearted sentiment. In many ways her character is the film’s emotional anchor, offering a more centered perspective on the stressed family dynamic. McKenzie has shown to be a steady, understated actress and she continues to make smart choices when it comes to picking roles.

“Lost Girls” is a gritty, clear-eyed look at a mother’s pain, regret, fury, and persistence. It’s about a family on the ropes well before the disappearance takes place. It’s about listening to women and taking their claims seriously. It doesn’t sell as well when it shifts to detective/police procedural mode. These scenes are a little more uneven and not given enough attention to be effective. But it’s when Garbus gets back to the family (which is the meat of the story) that the film is its most heartbreaking.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Last Full Measure” (2020)

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It was November 19, 1863 that Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address which contained the words “from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.” Lincoln’s mention of the ultimate sacrifice inspired the title for Todd Robinson’s war drama/conspiracy thriller “The Last Full Measure”.

The movie tells the story of United States Air Force Pararescueman William H. Pitsenbarger. During the Vietnam War, Pitsenbarger (nicknamed Pits) completed over 250 rescue missions. On April 11, 1966 the 21-year-old Pits lowered himself down from his medical chopper to treat wounded in the middle of an intense ambush. Instead of returning to the helicopter he stayed behind, rescuing as many as sixty soldiers before dying by a sniper bullet. Despite his incredible heroics, it shamefully took three decades for him to get the much-deserved Medal of Honor.

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Robinson tells this moving story by focusing on the quest to get Pits a posthumous Medal of Honor while weaving in flashbacks to the battle in Vietnam that ultimately cost him his life. The movie’s convictions are clear, maybe too clear for some. At the same time, it all comes together to provide a healthy reminder of how often we forget the heroes who sacrificed and their families still trying to pick up the pieces. Add a thick layer of bureaucracy and it only gets worse.

The bulk of the story takes place in 1999 where a fast-rising Pentagon hotshot named Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan) is given Pitsenbarger’s case after the soldier’s parents (a stellar Christopher Plummer and Diane Ladd) once again petition for their son to receive the Medal of Honor. Scott couldn’t care less and is already looking towards his next job opportunity. But as he begins interviewing those who witnessed Pits’ bravery firsthand (William Hurt, Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Fonda, Ed Harris) he begins seeing things in a different light.

The movie has quite a lot going on. The most potent moments come during the interviews where the scars of the war veterans are laid bare. Feelings of guilt, depression, nightmares and even worse symptoms of PTSD are examined. And with names like Hurt, Jackson, Fonda, and Harris you know the performances are there. The flashback battle scenes are told from their individual perspectives. They’re intense, effective and generally well shot.

The government conspiracy stuff doesn’t work quite as well. As Scott cuts his way through the cover-up and bureaucratic red tape, none of that side of the story is all that convincing. These scenes have some interesting things to say, but they don’t feel thoroughly ironed out and could have used more attention.

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Still, the movie’s main concern is Pitsenbarger and those affected by his heroism and these scenes offer up watch-worthy acting at every turn. One of my early ‘scene of the year’ candidates takes place in Pits’ bedroom where Christopher Plummer shares with Stan the little things he misses most about his son. It’s a powerfully moving sequence bursting with authentic emotion. Just another reminder that Plummer is effortlessly great.

Pickier viewers who demand nuance and ambiguity may not go for the movie’s openness and straightforward approach. And the film is full of big emotional moments that aim right for the heart. Can you see the gears turning during these scenes? Sure. But I can’t deny their effect and Robinson is clearly sharing something he cares about. It’s something that resonates throughout the entire film, even when things seem a little on-the-nose.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Live Twice, Love Once” (2020)

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The oddly titled Spanish family drama “Live Twice, Love Once” isn’t shy about taking several familiar themes and movie tropes then tossing them all into one big pot. A debilitating disease, a strained marriage, secrets from past, an unlikely road trip. Just some of the well-worn story elements that find their way into the film. Yet there’s no denying the sincerity and heart at the center of this otherwise routine picture.

It’s funny, throughout almost the entirety of “Live Twice, Love Once” I was constantly aware that I wasn’t seeing anything particularly new or fresh. But it’s a testament to the earnest approach taken by director Maria Ripoll and screenwriter Maria Minguez along with a cast fully in sync with the slightly offbeat humor and honest sensibility.

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Image via Netflix

The movie is built around the character Emilio (terrifically played by Oscar Martinez), an ornery retired university mathematics professor and widower. Our first glimpse of him is through a flashback where a young Emilio has a chance encounter with a girl named Margarita. We see she is clearly interested in him. He, although obviously drawn to her, is more interested in his studies.

Move to present day where Emilio’s daily routine consists of breakfast at his favorite corner cafe, admiring his record collection, and working number puzzles in his Valencia apartment. His life takes an unexpected turn after he is diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s disease. He tries to hide it from his daughter Julia (Inma Cuesta) but that turns out to be easier said than done.

Julia has her hands full at home. Her iPhone addicted daughter Blanca (Mafalda Carbonell) is entering that rebellious teen mode (parents know the one) while her unemployed goof of a husband Felipe (Nacho Lopez) spends more time trying to be an online self-help coach than looking for a job. None of them have an especially close relationship with Emilio which sets the table for the bulk of the story. Julia wants to take care of her father, Emilio wants no part of it. But as his memories dim and his recollections get murkier he realizes he may not have a choice. And that one memory of a long ago meeting with Margarita could be what brings this fractured family together.

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Image via Netflix

Alzheimer’s is a disease whose cruelty not only effects the person afflicted but also their loved ones who (for the most part) are utterly helpless. So this isn’t easy material to respectfully navigate. “Live Twice, Love Once” comes at the subject with a wry sense of humor rather than some ill-advised broad comedy approach. It’s more amusing than laugh-out-loud funny, that is until the second half which understandably gets heavier and is much more dramatic.

While I can’t (and won’t) deny the movie’s dual effect (it’s both heart-wrenching and heartwarming), I also can’t deny that it ventures pretty deep into routine sentimentality. Specifically in the final act where a lot of conveniences fall in place in order to get us to the bigger emotional moments. Still, there is enough sweet, real-life feeling along with characters you want to spend time with to make the film’s more conventional moments easy to digest.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Last Thing He Wanted” (2020)

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Dee Rees blew me away with her terrific Deep South period drama “Mudbound”. Her highly-anticipated follow-up couldn’t be a more different experience. “The Last Thing He Wanted” is what happens when a movie focuses too much on intricacy and not enough on coherence. As a result, not only does it lose itself but it loses its audience. And in this case it never is able get back on track.

It pains me to write those words because Rees showed such precision and control with “Mudbound”. Here her adaptation of Joan Didion’s 1996 novel is rich with ideas and ambition. It’s also loaded with a stellar cast that includes Anne Hathaway, Ben Affleck, Willem Dafoe, and Rosie Perez. But it’s the script which Rees co-wrote with Marco Villalobos that weirdly tries to do too much in some areas while at the same time offering us too little in others.

Even beginning to understand the story would require some grasp of Nicaragua in the early 1980s. The Sandinistas, the Contras, America’s interests in the region – all pivotal pieces of the backstory and those unfamiliar with it may want to read up on it first. The movie begins in 1982 El Salvador with Elena McMahon (Hathaway), a writer for the fictional Atlantic Times, and her close colleague Alma (Rosie Perez) investigating war crimes with potential ties to the US government. These are the movie’s best moments as things heat up and the two barely escape with their lives.

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PHOTO: Netflix

Back in Washington Elena eagerly begins planning a return trip to Central America, confident that she’s onto something linking Nicaraguan rebels with high-ranking government officials. But her editor has other plans. He reassigns her to cover the 1984 presidential election. An infuriated Elena reluctantly agrees but secretly continues compiling information for her Nicaragua story.

All of that is essentially setup for the real story. Elena gets a call that her father Richard (Willem Dafoe) has been hospitalized in Miami. Despite their strained relationship she goes to Florida to find him showing signs of early-stage dementia. It turns out Richard is a low-level gunrunner who has a honey of a deal set up in Costa Rica. But due to his condition he’s unable to see it through so he asks Elena to go in his place. She inexplicably agrees and soon finds herself embroiled in the very story she’s trying to break.

From there things only get muddier and convoluted as characters pop in and out giving long dialogue-thick discourses which only adds to the messiness. To be fair it’s confusing and disorienting by design. But instead of adding suspense it leaves the audience in a haze begging for anything resembling clarity. The fog clears somewhat in the crazy haphazard final ten minutes but it’s too little too late.

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PHOTO: Netflix

As I mentioned, characters come and go and come back again, talking a lot while telling us little. An incredibly dry Ben Affleck plays Treat Morrison, a US diplomat who seems to have his finger on the pulse of every shady Central American dealing. Should we trust him? Edi Gathegi is even more ambiguous showing up at the strangest of times and then vanishing. And perhaps the most bizarre (and boring) is Toby Jones who plays an American expat who gives Elena a job as (of all things) a maid and gopher. He appears in a needless third-act segment seemingly yanked out of thin air.

The bulk of the load falls on Hathaway who turns down her normal radiance to portrayal a seasoned yet world-weary reporter with baggage. She’s a single mother, a breast cancer survivor, romantically detached – all things that could have added meaningful depth if explored with more feeling. We get hints of emotional complexity but it’s quickly tossed aside for more surface level stuff. But Hathaway deserves credit. She pours her all into Elena, but even she can’t make sense of some of her character’s late-movie decisions.

The biggest frustration with “The Last Thing He Wanted” is that you can see it has the makings of a really good political thriller. It’s built like a thriller and paced liked one too. But it lacks the narrative cohesion needed to bring its many moving parts together. So you’re left with an ambitious movie that looks the part but is maddening in its inability to make sense.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”

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The opening scene of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is a stunning slice of filmmaking. It’s beautiful, elegant, and provocative. It highlights a budding filmmaker already showing off terrific instincts when it comes to harmonizing music with cinema’s visual language. And it sets the table for this clear-eyed love letter to a city and thoughtful meditation on the meaning of ‘home’.

“Last Black Man” is the inspired feature film debut of director Joe Talbot. He conceived the story alongside his long-time friend and the film’s star Jimmy Fails with Rob Richert co-writing the screenplay. The story sees Fails playing a version of himself while telling a version of his actual life growing up in the ever-changing city of San Francisco.

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Photo: A24

The aforementioned opening begins with a young girl looking up with childlike curiosity. We then see the object of her gaze – a man in a hazmat suit picking up trash. She begins skipping and a tracking shot follows, eventually settling on a street preacher and his audience of two. The two men, Jimmie (played by Fails) and his best friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), are there to catch a bus but decide they have waited long enough. The scene then transitions to the friends scooting across San Francisco neighborhoods on Jimmie’s skateboard, their destination still undefined. The use of slow-motion and the way the camera draws in on faces are just parts of the effective technique.

The two friends arrive in the Fillmore District, stopping at a particular Victorian home. This is our introduction to what could be considered the movie’s central relationship between Jimmie and this house. We learn it was Jimmie’s childhood home and his grandfather built it in 1946. Exploring the idea of gentrification, the house is now occupied by an older middle-class couple and the neighborhood has a much different look than when Jimmie was a kid.

Jimmie and Montgomery live in a cramped house with Mont’s grandfather (Danny Glover) in the poorer Bayview-Hunter’s Point. But Jimmie dreams of owning the house of his youth and sneaks in to work on the old Victorian whenever the older couple are away (They would rather he not). It’s an impulse driven by powerful memories but also a deep personal yearning for a dream that may already be out of reach. That taps into one of many thematic threads that run through the sometimes meandering but always honest story.

From its earliest moments to its crushing final shots, Talbot makes San Francisco itself a fundamental part of every scene, either visually or through the characters who always convey some element of the city’s effects. The rich cinematography from Adam Newport-Berra give sight to the tangible, organic love Talbot and Fails share for the Bay Area. And  the harmony of Emile Mosseri’s operatic score along with a couple of beautifully employed cover songs add to the film’s ever-present sense of love and longing.

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Photo: A24

You’re not allowed to hate it unless you also love it.” By the time Jimmie utters these words we have already watched him endure hardship and disappointment. Yet he defends his city even as his city ignores him. Fails speaks from his heart and rarely does his screenwork come across as a performance. It is soulful, funny, and full of feeling. And I can’t say enough about Jonathan Majors and the life he brings to Mont whose story is in itself both tender and heart-rending.

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” has a lot to say about a lot of things. But it never loses sight of its most important element – humanity. The movie is a window into the human experience from some truly enlightening perspectives. And even during some of its slower moments it never loses that effect. It makes the film’s final shots more tragic and the sting of it will stick with you for days.

VERDICT- 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Les Misérables” (2019)

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Those going into Ladj Ly’s “Les Misérables” expecting a retelling of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel will be in for a big surprise. But Ly’s choice of title isn’t without reason. A chunk of Hugo’s classic takes place in the Parisian suburb of Montfermeil where Ly grew up. The neighborhood still suffers from crime, destitution, and an assortment of other social and class issues which Ly sets out to portray through an intensely personal lens.

This is Ly’s feature film directorial debut and it presents itself like a cross between a documentary and Denzel Washington’s “Training Day”. But the most striking aspect of the film is how true to life it is. Ly has stated that his goal for “Les Misérables” was to tell about life in this gritty community from the inside. From the very start the story feels authentic and firmly rooted within the merciless bounds of a poverty-stricken banlieue.

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The movie opens with a crafty bit of misdirection as a mass of humanity gather throughout the streets of Paris to celebrate France winning the 2018 World Cup. We witness people of all races, creeds and colors side-by-side in a shared state of euphoria. It’s a picture of happiness and harmony. Then the title appears and Ly quickly snaps us back to reality.

Ly sets us down into the Montfermeil tinderbox with its factions, gangs, and (perhaps the biggest troublemakers) police. Our unsuspecting guide through it all is Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), the new member of an Anti-Crime squad that works the projects. He’s teamed with the abrasive and shamelessly bigoted Chris (Alexis Manenti who also cowrote the film) who bullies locals for the sheer enjoyment of it. And also the easygoing Gwada (Djebril Zonga) who was born and raised in the neighborhood. He has more of a conscience than Chris, but rarely uses it to rein his partner in.

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As the cops patrol the community butting heads with various street personalities, another group is frequently in the background – the neighborhood kids. They are the real victims and play a variety of necessary roles in getting the story to its combustible ending. Most notably is a young boy named Issa (Issa Perica), a goodhearted but mischievous kid who has clearly been dealt a bad hand in life. He becomes a pawn in a power struggle between the three policeman and a shady local leader known as the Mayor (Steve Tientcheu).

Ly, Manenti, and fellow co-writer Giordano Gederlini keep the temperature at a steady simmer right up until the explosive final act which packs one heck of a kick. At times “Les Misérables” resembles a pretty standard police thriller, but I fell right in with its tense, fast-paced rhythm and it ends in a visceral place that shakes you up and leaves you with plenty to chew on.

REVIEW – 4 STARS

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