THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD (Norway, 2021)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Joachim Trier
Cast: Renate Reinsve, Anders Danielsen Lie, Herbert Nordrum
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 96% Certified Fresh Fresh
Everyone’s a Critic Category: “Watch a Film with Subtitles”

PLOT: The chronicles of four years in the life of Julie (Renate Reinsve), a young woman who navigates the troubled waters of her love life and struggles to find her career path, leading her to take a realistic look at who she really is.


I love “what-if” scenarios.  There is a whole line of comic books, Marvel and DC, dedicated to intriguing “what-if” questions.  What if Peggy Carter took the super-soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers?  What if Bruce Wayne’s parents had not been killed?  And so on.

Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World is a what-if scenario for film geeks.  What if…Woody Allen wrote a romantic comedy about a woman in her 30s on a road to self-discovery?  And then what if Ingmar Bergman took a crack at the screenplay and decided it was too happy, so he added some material about death?  And then…what if David Fincher directed it on 35-mm film with the bare minimum of CG effects?

Julie (Renate Reinsve, who won Best Actress at Cannes for this role) is a 30-something woman who cycles through career paths before finally settling on photography.  She meets, falls in love with, and moves in with Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a comic-strip creator and author in his 40s.  They are happy together, share deep conversations, discuss kids (he wants them, she doesn’t), and spend time with his family at their lake house.

But then one night Julie walks home from a business function with Aksel and, for reasons she doesn’t quite understand, crashes a fancy party.  Here she meets Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), a charming fellow with a broad smile.  They talk.  There is a clear connection, but they are both in committed relationships.  They decide they will not cheat.  But…what defines cheating?  Does drinking from the same bottle of beer constitute cheating?  What about sharing a secret?  What about smelling each other’s sweat?  How far this little game goes, I will not reveal, but it did not end where I thought it would.  Their meet-cute ends with them walking home in opposite directions, neither giving the other their last names so they won’t be tempted to search for each other on Facebook.  Will they meet again?  Don’t make me laugh.

The Worst Person in the World is brain candy.  I am on the record as stating that I have been, somewhat unsuccessfully, avoiding films with heavier subject matter over the years.  (I can think of no situation in which I would willingly sit and re-watch The Conformist [1970], for example, to see what I missed the first time I slept through it.)  However, over the years I have seen and reviewed some heavy films that were highly rewarding: Amour [2012], Incendies [2010], and Nomadland [2020], to name a few.  The Worst Person in the World is not quite as gut-punching as those other films, but it was intelligent and funny and startling in all the right places, and what more could you ask for in a romantic comedy/drama?

The David Fincher element I alluded to earlier comes from the visual style of the film.  Director Joachim Trier loves to include primary colors, especially white, in his compositions, which is apparently a big no-no when it comes to cinematography.  The result of this choice is that anything containing colors of any kind really <pops> on the screen, while lending a kind of antiseptic feel to some of the scenes, as well.  For some reason, I associate that combination of clinical distancing with popping colors with Fincher.  (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo [2011] comes to mind.)

There’s also a celebrated sequence in which Julie, still in a relationship with Aksel but unable to stop thinking about Eyvind (especially after bumping into him again unexpectedly), conjures a fantasy in which she runs to meet him where he works while the entire world around her remains frozen in place.  The effects in this sequence are flawless, especially when you realize that the only CG effects were those removing visible supports that kept a couple of bicycles and human limbs suspended in midair.  Everything else was done 100% real, in-camera, with real people simply frozen in place.

The effect of this scene is magical.  It evokes that giddy period we (hopefully) all remember when a brand new love has taken hold of us, and the rest of the world goes on hold while we hold hands and kiss and share a sunset and talk and walk and kiss again and time stands still, or goes too fast, depending on your point of view.  The brilliance of this movie is that it evokes those glorious feelings…and the whole time, in the back of the viewer’s mind, is that reminder: “But they’re cheeeatiiiing…”

The movie’s title immediately made me think Julie was the titular “Worst Person”, and for a while it seems to be true.  She can’t decide on a career, she knows she doesn’t want kids with Aksel but can’t really explain why, she impulsively flirts with Eyvind, she writes an internet-famous/infamous article wondering how a woman can be considered a feminist if she engages in oral sex.  But after watching the movie, I don’t believe that’s the movie’s intent.  I think we’re supposed to see how other people, including myself, might make the mistake of thinking Julie is a terrible person.  On the contrary, she’s just as confused and inarticulate about relationships and feelings as I am, as any of us are.  As she breaks up with someone, she makes what might sound like an emotionally cruel statement: “Who knows?  Maybe we’ll get back together again in the future.”  But in reality, she’s just refusing to rule anything out.  Badly phrased?  Perhaps.  But she is being as honest as she knows how to be.

(I haven’t even discussed the sequence where Julie ingests some “magic” mushrooms and goes on a drug trip for the ages, involving cartoon characters, aging, a touch of body horror, and the kind of face painting you’ll NEVER see at a theme park.  The movie even pokes fun at the shock of some of this imagery by inserting a shot of a movie theater full of people visibly cringing…a neat bit of meta-humor/commentary on the value of shocking your audience.)

The Worst Person in the World is worth your time if you’re a fan of love stories that don’t pander in any way, shape, or form.  Director Joachim Trier has gone on record as saying it’s a “romantic comedy for people who hate romantic comedies.”  That’s about right.  Don’t look for a conventional happy ending or a conventional main character.  These are just people searching for connection, who even when they’ve found it, never stop looking.  For better or worse.


QUESTIONS FROM EVERYONE’S A CRITIC

Best line or memorable quote?
JULIE: If men had periods, that’s all we’d hear about.

How important is it to you to watch a film in its native language?
Very. But not always. For example, I would not have wanted to watch a dubbed version of The Worst Person in the World. However, I have no issue with watching a dubbed version of something like Akira [1988] or Spirited Away [2001]. It comes down to the medium. For live action, I feel it’s most important to know the precise meaning behind what the characters are saying, and it’s difficult to get that from watching someone’s lips not moving in synch with the sounds coming out of their mouths. However, with animation, I want to drink in the visuals as much as possible, and that’s not as easy to do when you’re trying to read subtitles.

Do you feel subtitles lessen the overall movie experience?
Not at all. Look at Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds [2009]. In that film, subtitles were absolutely essential to the plot, especially the opening sequence at that French farmhouse. There are those who disagree, but that’s my opinion. (But don’t get me started on those who insist on watching English films with English subtitles on…that’s another story.)

GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS

By Marc S. Sanders

The characters in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross are under terrible pressure.  They are salesmen who are consistently chasing insurmountable sales goals in real estate properties.  One of them has an ill daughter in the hospital.  Another has a temptation to rob his office as a means of earning some fast cash.  Another is in despair of his self-worth.  To be a salesman, of any kind of commodity, is a tough life to lead.  The payoffs can be enormous when a sale is successful.  However, once a transaction is complete, the response is often “what have you done for me lately?”  These guys are never happy.  However, they are also some of the cruelest, most insensitive, and thoughtless people you will ever meet.  They have no other choice but to behave that way.  It’s the nature of the business.

The film adaptation of Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize winning play contains a collection of outstanding actors doing some of their best work.  They embrace the brutal dialogue the screenplay hands over to them with relentless cursing and flaring tempers.  Glengarry Glen Ross has you believe that you run your sales career on your own with little help or encouragement from the people you slave for. 

Early in the film, Alec Baldwin, known only as a man named Blake (based on the end credits) visits the office where these salesmen are based out of.  He delivers an unforgiving and harsh reality of what these men must do.  They either get their sales numbers high on the board, where they can win a new Cadillac, or they settle for a set of steak knives for second place.  After that, they are fired.  Regardless of where they currently stand though, they should not even be pouring themselves a cup of coffee.  Coffee is only for closers.  The office manager, known as Williamson (Kevin Spacey), only provides the men with sales leads that have already been exhausted with rejection and hang ups. 

Director James Foley does a wise technique with color.  The first half of the film appears in drabs of greens and greys amid an evening of torrential rain downpour.  Before Blake finishes his threatening presentation, he dangles new leads, the “Glengarry Leads,” in front of the men saying these are not for them, because they are only for closers.  The old leads that Williamson hands out are on green index cards, nothing flashy.  Blake’s leads are bright pink with a gold ribbon tied around them.  Foley makes sure that even a prop tells a story.

The salesman that gets the most attention is perhaps Shelley “The Machine” Levene played by Jack Lemmon.  He’s elderly and past his prime with no numbers currently on the sales board.  Frequently, he is making calls to the hospital for an update on his daughter who is due for surgery, but if he can’t make a payment, then the procedure is likely not to happen.  Lemmon is fascinating in maybe the best performance of his career.  Many of his scenes are toe to toe with Spacey as he shifts from pleading to demanding to disingenuously threatening and ultimately bribing Williamson for the new leads. Levene is so out of touch now that he can’t even sell Williamson on helping him out.  Spacey as Williamson is terrific in his defiance to not lend any sort of aid to Shelley.

David Mamet added additional material to the script, not found in the stage play.  The Blake character is new to the film, for example, and I think it is a better, more fleshed out story because of it.  As well, Foley is able to go outside of the reserved settings of the bar and office, as he follows Levene making a knock-on-the-door sales call in the middle of the rainy night to a family man.  This may be Lemmon’s best scene of the film as he weasels his way into the home to quickly get his raincoat and hat off and get a seat on the sofa as he begins his “once in a lifetime” opportunity that the potential customer may miss out on.  It’s a sales pitch, despite Lemmon’s charm, and the patron can see right through Levene’s performance.  As the door closes on Shelley, you’re terribly sad for his desperation and failure.

On the other end of the spectrum is the current, most successful salesman named Richard Roma.  He’s played by a showy looking Al Pacino who initially doesn’t perform in the broad strokes he’s become recognized for as an actor.  Pacino does a quiet, delicate approach to his character’s sales presentation as he shares a table with a sap (Jonathan Pryce) who is weeping into his liquor glass.  Roma stretches the rainy evening out in the bar with this guy, talking about vague anythings, until he can subtly pounce on him with a brochure that’ll get his signature on a contract. 

Two other salesmen, Moss and Aaronow (Ed Harris, Alan Arkin) vent their frustrations elsewhere in the bar as they eventually segue into an idea of burglarizing the office for those tempting new leads.  However, are they working together as a team on this idea, or is one working something over on the other?  Mamet’s dialogue is chopped up perfectly with utterances and interruptions, that before a character reveals his intentions, you are left flabbergasted.  What is demonstrated here is that a skillful salesman is also an efficacious manipulator.

The second half of the film is set on the following morning where the sunlight has come through.  New revelations following the stormy night from before will present themselves as the men gradually arrive at the office to find it actually has been robbed.  The obvious of circumstances are there.  However, Mamet sets up an ending that’ll leave you breathless.  It did for me the first time I watched the film.  Just when you think you are watching a protagonist throughout the film, something else entirely comes up.

Glengarry Glen Ross has been regarded as a modern-day Death Of A Salesman.  Maybe it is.  I’ve worked in this kind of field before. There were months where I was good at it, and like everyone else, I would brag about my success with recaptured anecdotes and celebratory curse words flying out of my mouth.  There were also months where I would gripe about how uncompromising this life is. When I didn’t want to do sales any longer, I spent twelve years as an assistant to sales representatives.  They are not your friend.  They are only focused on the next contract to be signed and booked before month end, and they will ask anything of you with a seething f-word attached to their request.    Are we so terrible if we can not make an unreachable goal with tools that offer no help and supervisors that lend no encouragement or forgiveness?  To be a salesman means that any of your past accomplishments or education do not define you.  You are only identified as the one who must acquire the next thing, and then the next thing after that.  It will change your attitude about yourself and how you treat others.  It’ll alter your dialogue which is so vitally apparent in Mamet’s story.  It will even influence you to take measures you never thought you’d be capable of.

James Foley enhanced an already electrifying script from David Mamet.  He knew that if he was going to show how hard and challenging it is to be a salesman of boring, uninteresting, and practically intangible parcels of land, then he was going to have to be relentless in the art direction and settings contained in the film.  The first half of the film never, ever lets up with the rain storm going on outside in the city street.  The evening is as black as can be, and yet Williamson casually will ask Levene if he is going out tonight. Who in the dead of night in the rain is going to want to talk to a droning salesman about anything?  Yet, that’s what is expected of this life.  The office setting is unfriendly, decorated with ideals that hang from the walls with phrases like “A man must embrace further than what he can reach.”  Little touches like this only add to the uncaring and selfish nature the men really have for one another. 

Glengarry Glen Ross depicts a hard life for the man in a suit.  You may dress like what is expected of a professional, but you are also always scraping the bottom of another bottom.  The cliché that money can’t buy happiness is personified in a film like this.  You may get to the top and score a nice commission, but it’ll soon be forgotten and nothing you’ve done before will lend to your current state.  Next month, someone else will be standing where you are standing.  Worse, you may never be standing on top again, and then what will you do?

Sadly, I believe that Glengarry Glen Ross reflects what many people experience at least at one point in their lives.  We are all salespeople to a degree whether we are doing a job interview or even trying to impress the parents of someone we are dating.  It doesn’t always work out.  The question is where do any of us go from that point.

THE BLACK STALLION (1979)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Carroll Ballard
Cast: Kelly Reno, Mickey Rooney, Teri Garr, Clarence Muse, Hoyt Axton
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 90% Fresh
Everybody’s a Critic Category: “Watch a Film Starring Animals”

PLOT: After being shipwrecked off the coast of Africa in the 1940s, a boy bonds with a magnificent Arabian stallion and trains him to race after their rescue.


Horses are great, but they are not my favorite animals.  That honor goes to the great white shark.  (They fear nothing; the only things they are even cautious around are larger great whites…but I digress.)  I always hear and read about how magnificent and majestic and spiritual horses are.  I have never denied their intelligence, but I never jumped on the bandwagon with folks who believe they are angels on four legs.  And I’ve never really gotten into horse racing, at least not on an ongoing basis.

But there is one movie that combines the mystique of horses and horse racing with poetry, grace, and true art.  Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion is one of the most beautiful films ever made.  The visuals are so good and well-edited that fully 28 minutes of the movie are presented with zero lines of dialogue spoken.  After a fearsome shipwreck, Alec Ramsay (Kelly Reno) finds himself stranded on a desert island along with a magnificent unnamed black stallion whom he later simply calls the Black.  During this shipwrecked portion of the movie, all dialogue is dropped, and we simply watch as Alec and the Black overcome their initial fear of each other and bond.

It is in these scenes that The Black Stallion truly shines.  There is one particular sequence that will stick in my memory forever.  After some days and weeks alone, Alec tries to get the Black to eat food directly out of his hand.  In a nearly unbroken take, we watch as the Black warily approaches Alec, then turns away, snorting and stomping, then turns back, taking one cautious step after another, getting closer and closer…and it all looks completely organic.  It’s one of the greatest acting performances by any animal in any film I’ve ever seen.  In that scene, the Black exhibits more proficiency at acting on camera than I’ve seen in a few human actors I could name.

When I first saw this movie at 8 years old, I couldn’t fully appreciate the ingenuity of this portion of the film.  All I cared about was how invested I was in seeing Alec bond with the Black.  I didn’t care about cinematic theory and editorial processes and visionary cinematography.  But it’s all there in full view, presenting a visual story clearly and cleanly.  Buster Keaton would have loved this movie, I think.  (At least, the silent portions, I would imagine.)

The Black Stallion piles on one visually exhilarating scene after another involving Alec gradually gaining enough trust from the stallion to the point the Black allows Alec to ride him.  And then they are both rescued and returned home to America, and it’s here the movie seems to stumble just a bit.  After the grand vistas of their desert refuge, the white picket fences and tree-lined avenues of 1940s suburbia is a tad underwhelming.  When the Black gets spooked by garbagemen and runs off, we do get a nice contrast of seeing this semi-mythical creature of a bygone age galloping past storefronts and hurdling fruit crates.

Alec chases the Black and eventually finds him in a seemingly deserted barn owned by one Henry Dailey, an ex-jockey played to utter perfection by Mickey Rooney.  To say Rooney’s performance in The Black Stallion is “natural” is an understatement.  And to older audience members familiar with Rooney’s performance as a jockey in the 1944 film National Velvet, this must have been like seeing the remaining members of the Ghostbusters reunite in Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021).  When he trains Alec how to ride the Black, you get this incredible sense of a man tapping a massive reservoir of knowledge for the benefit of the next generation.  I don’t know if I’m accurately describing this facet of Rooney’s performance, but if you watch the movie, you’ll see what I mean.

As do so many other movies featuring horses (not all, but many), The Black Stallion culminates with a horse race, this one pitting the Black against the two fastest horses in the country.  As we are fed information about how and why this race comes about, I particularly noticed how one phrase was repeated at least twice: “They’ll never let him run…he doesn’t have any papers.”  No doubt there are horse enthusiasts who know what that means.  I haven’t the foggiest clue what they’re talking about, but the cool thing is…it doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter now, and it certainly didn’t matter when I saw it as a kid.  It’s enough to know that “papers” are something other horses have, but the Black doesn’t, and that seems pretty important to some people, no matter how fast he runs.  It’s just another way The Black Stallion is constructed to appeal to audiences of all stripes, be they equestrian aficionados or rank amateurs.  There are not a lot of films that can do that, and I don’t know if The Black Stallion gets recognized enough for that accomplishment.

The climactic horse race ends exactly how you would expect it to end.  Formulaic?  Of course.  But what a race!  The cinematography, editing, Oscar-winning sound design, and carefully restrained use of the musical score all combine to create a moment every bit as thrilling as any NASCAR race.  Even now, watching the movie for this review, I fell into the moment all over again, smiling with delight as Alec and the Black pound their way around the track, hooves thundering on the dirt, pumping my fists when Alec discards that pesky helmet and goggles, and those other horses ahead of them get closer and closer…

Any lover of horses owes it to themselves to find and watch The Black Stallion.  Kids will get a kick out of it, but adults will, too, perhaps on another, more nostalgic level.  (That could just be me projecting based on my own childhood memories, but I stand by it.)


QUESTIONS FROM EVERYONE’S A CRITIC

  1. Which character were you most able to identify with?  In what way?
    Well, for me, there’s no question I identify with Alec.  I still remember how I felt watching this movie for the first time.  I mean, I didn’t necessarily want to BE Alec, but he was my entry into the world of the movie.  I knew how he felt when he was trying to convince his mother to let him ride in a race.  I knew what he must have felt at the very beginning of the movie when his curiosity about the Black overcame his very real fear of such a powerful animal.  And I thrilled when he raised his hands in triumph during the horse race.  (Kind of an easy answer, to be honest, but…there you go.
  2. If you were to make a movie starring animals, what animals would you choose, and why?
    …well, as I mentioned before, great white sharks are my favorite animals, but they are notoriously difficulty to film, as shark cinematographer “Three-Fingers” Joe will tell you.  I’d have to go with dogs.  Much easier to train, plus every day they see you arrive on set, they’ll treat you like they thought you’d be gone forever.  My film would be a comedy/sci-fi story involving a cat’s brain being transplanted into a dog’s body.  Maybe get Paul Rudd to do the voice of the dog.  …it’s a work in progress.

FRACTURE

By Marc S. Sanders

When director Gregory Hoblit was shooting this film, did he ever wonder how preposterous this courtroom mystery is?  

This ridiculous effort featuring a tired Anthony Hopkins as a suspect representing himself, and a very green Ryan Gosling as the prosecuting attorney proudly boasts a centerpiece storyline of simply finding a gun used in an attempted murder.  That’s it really.  No nuances.  No subtle riddles.  Just a “what happened to the gun?” plot line.  

It’s any wonder that I had never heard of this movie until I found it on Netflix.

Take my advice.  Find something else on Netflix.

THE DEER HUNTER (1978)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

THE DEER HUNTER (1978)
Director: Michael Cimino
Cast: Robert De Niro, John Cazale, John Savage, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 86% Certified Fresh

PLOT: An in-depth examination of the ways in which the Vietnam War impacts and disrupts the lives of several friends in a small steel mill town in Pennsylvania

[Author’s note: This will be the first in an ongoing series of reviews inspired by a book given to me as a birthday present by my long-suffering girlfriend.  Entitled Everyone’s a Critic, it challenges readers to watch a movie a week within a given category, then answer questions like, “Why did you choose this particular film” or “Do you feel this film deserved the award? Why or why not?”  Clearly designed to inspire discussion.  This category was “A Film That Has Won Best Picture.” This format is a work in progress, so I hope you’ll bear with me on future installments.

I am going to assume, for the most part, that most readers will have seen the movies being reviewed in this series.  Therefore, some spoilers may or will follow.  You have been warned.]


Once about every couple of years, I like to pick up and read Stephen King’s The Stand in its original uncut version.  My paperback copy runs to 1,141 pages, not including King’s foreword and a brief prologue.  Even Tolstoy would look at that thing and go, “Dude…edit yourself.”  But having read it numerous times now, I cannot imagine what could possibly have been excised from the edited version of King’s novel.  Every detail of that apocalyptic saga feels necessary.  Reading it is like falling into a fully realized alternate universe.

That’s what watching The Deer Hunter is like.  I can still remember the first time I watched it.  I knew its reputation as one of the greatest Vietnam War movies ever made, had heard of its harrowing Russian Roulette scene, and was intensely curious.  I popped it into the VCR, hit play…and for the first 70 minutes I got a slice-of-life drama about steel workers in a tiny Pittsburgh town (Clairton, for the detail-oriented) where, mere days before three friends ship off to Vietnam, one of them is getting married.  And the centerpiece is the wedding reception.  Ever watch a video of a wedding reception?  How high do you think a young teenager would rate its entertainment value on a scale of 1 to 10? 

I could not appreciate, as I do now, how vital this scene is.  Relationships are stated, expanded upon, and brought to a kind of cliffhanger.  Take the mostly non-verbal interplay between Linda (a luminous young Meryl Streep) and Michael (Robert De Niro).  Linda is clearly in a relationship with Nick (Christopher Walken), but it is painfully obvious that Michael and Linda have eyes for each other.  Mike watches intently from the bar as Linda dances at the reception, and whenever their eyes meet you can almost hear their hearts stop beating.  The oblivious Nick even pairs them on the dance floor while he visits the bar himself.  The awkwardness as Michael forces small talk and Linda shyly reciprocates is palpable.  And…is that Nick giving the two of them the eye at one point…?

As a kid, I wondered why this soap opera nonsense was necessary in a Vietnam film.  Of course, I didn’t know what was coming.  That’s the beauty and wonder of The Deer Hunter.  It challenges you to follow along with this miniature melodrama to give meaning to what comes next.

There is a key moment during the reception when an Army soldier wearing a green beret stops by the reception.  Mike, Nick, and Steven (John Savage), who are gung-ho about serving their country, yell their support and let him know how much they’re looking forward to killing the enemy.  The steely-eyed soldier raises his glass, looks away, and says, “Fuck it.”  It’s not terribly subtle, but the ominous nature of this moment always fills me with a sense of foreboding, even having seen the film many times by now.

But even after the reception is over, there is one more small-town pit stop to make before the movie gets to Vietnam.  (In fact, The Deer Hunter spends surprisingly little time in Vietnam.)  Michael and a group of friends including Nicky and Stan (John Cazale) go hunting for deer in the mountains as a kind of ritual before Nick, Mike, and Steven are deployed.  It is in this sequence that Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s talents are put to stunning use.  We are shown vistas of the Allegheny Mountains that are simply breathtaking, with Mike and his friends seen as mere dots in the mountainsides.  Choral music with a men’s choir singing in Russian is heard on the soundtrack, giving the sequence a majestic aura that must be seen and heard to be believed.

Then the hunt is over, and the boys all have one last drunken night at the bar owned by another friend, John (George Dzundza in an under-appreciated, realistic performance).  Here they all sing along to Frankie Valli and listen somberly as John plays a sad classical tune on his piano.  And then, in one of the film’s masterstrokes of editing, we slam-cut immediately to the jungles of Vietnam – no boot camp, no footage of them being trained or flown over there, just suddenly they’re there and the contrast between the carnage we experience in the first few minutes of Vietnam versus the rhythms of their lives in Clairton could not be more extreme.

In a horrific but mercifully brief sequence, we watch as a Viet Cong soldier calmly walks into a burned-out village, discovers a hidden pit holding terrified villagers, and remorselessly tosses a grenade inside.  We then watch as Mike, now a battle-hardened soldier, emerges from a hiding place with a flamethrower and burns the VC soldier alive.

The effect of this scene cannot be understated.  To witness Michael torching a soldier, even after that soldier committed a brutal act himself, is jarring.  And why is it so jarring?  Because we have seen Mike as a civilian, as a friend, as a would-be lover, during that lengthy sequence at the wedding reception and while hunting with his friends.  Admittedly, you got the sense that he could or would get violent if necessary.  (He’s clearly the alpha male of his “clique.”)  But this…I mean, damn.

Then, in one of those Hollywood conveniences that never get old, Mike is unexpectedly reunited with Nick and Steve who just happened to arrive at that very same village with another platoon of US soldiers.  And then, immediately after being reunited, they are captured by enemy forces, imprisoned with several enemy combatants in a riverside compound, and forced by their sadistic keepers to play Russian roulette with each other as the guards bet on the outcome.  Michael comes up with a horrifyingly logical escape plan: convince the guards to put THREE bullets in the chamber instead of one.

Much has been made regarding the historical inaccuracy of this scene.  To those arguments, I say: who cares?  As someone once said, riffing from Mark Twain, “Never let facts get in the way of truth.”  The truth of the matter is, the Vietnam experience was a modern-day horror show, leaving physical and psychic scars on its participants and on our country.  In my opinion, the Russian roulette scene can be interpreted as a symbol of how those soldiers, or ANY soldiers, must have felt every single day.  Going on a routine patrol in the jungle could have potentially lethal circumstances.  They rolled the dice every time they called in an airstrike, betting they didn’t get firebombed themselves.  Booby traps were everywhere.  How is life in a war zone that much different from being given a one-in-six chance at living or dying?

I’ve already gone into far more spoilers than I am accustomed to, so let’s just say this happens and that happens, Michael winds up making it back home, Steven is grievously wounded in the escape attempt, and Nick goes AWOL when, after making it back to a military hospital in Saigon, he wanders the streets at night and discovers an underground ring of lunatics who run a high-stakes game of Russian roulette.  And we’re still just at the mid-point of the film.

When we see Michael back home, the earlier sequences establishing the rhythms of small-town life and his feelings towards Linda, for example, all come into focus.  We need that reception and the hunting scenes so we can see how much Michael has changed.  For example, when Michael is arriving back home by taxi, still in full military dress, he spots a huge banner: “WELCOME HOME MICHAEL”.  He tells the driver to keep going.  In a hotel room later that night, he sits on the edge of his bed and rocks back and forth, winding up crouching against the wall.  He is completely unable to process how to deal with people anymore.  Or, at least, he doesn’t trust what he will or won’t say.  I watch that scene, and I feel such intense sympathy and empathy.  What he’s feeling, what he’s been through, what he’s seen, is so huge that he knows he’ll never be able to explain it to anyone who hasn’t been there.  He knows he’ll get questions like, “What was it like?  Did you kill anyone?  How are you feeling?  Where’s Nicky?”  I’ll never know what it’s like to fight in a war, but if I had gone through what he’d gone through, I wouldn’t have stopped either.

There is a heartbreaking scene where Linda, who is more than a little distraught that Nicky is AWOL, hesitantly suggests to Michael that they go to bed.  “Can’t we just comfort each other?”  Mike rebuffs her, but in a way that makes it clear he’d like to, regardless.  De Niro’s performance here is staggering.  As he walks out, he makes a statement, showcasing how much he is feeling but also how unable he is to articulate it: “I feel a lot of distance, and I feel far away.”  I knew exactly what he was talking about.

The very end of The Deer Hunter is one of the most emotionally shattering finales of any movie I’ve ever seen.  It ends with a simple song, first sung as a solo, then joined by everyone else at the table.  I will not reveal what happens to get us there.  Is it shameless manipulation?  Yes.  Does it work?  Yes, so I can forgive the “shameless” part.

One of the criticisms I’ve read more than once about The Deer Hunter is how “one-sided” it is.  To which I say, “Well, duh.”  The Deer Hunter is not presented as a history lesson or a lecture on the internal politics in the country of Vietnam during the war.  The Deer Hunter is intended to make us feel something.  It wants to show us what happens to a person who is exposed to the very worst side of human behavior and lives to talk about it.  It wants to remind us that a country can wave a flag and stand for what’s right and be willing to sacrifice its best and brightest souls for a righteous cause…but it must also be prepared for the aftermath.  The Deer Hunter is a somber prayer that our country remembers the cost it demands, and that it will take care of its own when the dust settles.

PIG (2021)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Michael Sarnoski
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Alex Wolff, Adam Arkin
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 97% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A truffle hunter who lives alone in the Oregon wilderness must venture to urban Portland in search of his beloved foraging pig after she is, I guess, pig-napped.


Gotta tell you, that plot summary is one of the most bizarre summaries I’ve ever typed out.  To me, it’s on par with, “A file clerk working on the 7th-and-a-half floor of an office building discovers a portal that transports you into the brain of John Malkovich for 15 minutes before spitting you onto the side of the Jersey Turnpike.”

Who read the elevator pitch for Pig and thought it was worth filming?  Nicolas Cage himself is credited as one of the producers, so that’s a partial explanation, I guess.  The film has twenty other credited producers and executive producers, so it’s clear the financial burden was spread around.  But still…a movie about a guy looking for his stolen pig?  Is this a movie you should run out and rent/stream/buy?

Yes.  Yes, you should.  Oh, but let me tell you why.

Cage plays a scraggly fellow named Rob who lives in the aforementioned cabin with his pig, whose name is never spoken throughout the movie.  (Although when it was over, I had one or two guesses of my own, each as unlikely as the other.)  This pig excels at finding valuable truffles hidden in the shallow forest soil.  How valuable?  Well, the ones we see in the movie are black, and the current market price for winter black truffles runs from $300 – $1,300 per kilo, depending on the variant.  So…yeah, pretty valuable.  Rob apparently funds his meager existence by selling his truffles to a high-end buyer named Amir (Alex Wolff, Hereditary [2018]), a slick customer who drives a banana-yellow late-model Camaro.  I’m not sure how many Portland restaurateurs can afford Camaros, but it didn’t bother me until this precise moment, so I’ll let it slide.

One night, unknown parties break into Rob’s cabin, beat him up, and steal his pig.  At this point, I was reminded unavoidably of the opening scenes of John Wick (2014), and I thought we were in for another kill-crazy-rampage film like Mandy (2018).  But I was very pleasantly surprised.

It turns out Pig isn’t a revenge movie, or a weird Spike-Jonze-esque journey into absurdity, or a mind-numbing Bergman-esque examination of the human condition.  Ultimately, it’s about food.  Yeah.  Or the transformative properties of food.  Or maybe it’s just about cooking food.  It feels like the kind of movie Anthony Bourdain would have loved, if that’s not being too presumptuous.

Once he gets a line on who the thieves might be, Rob convinces Amir to help him track them down by driving him into the city.  First stop is a sketchy-looking guy who rebuffs Rob’s request for information and asks Amir, “Do you even know his real name?”  That leads to a hidden restaurant under another restaurant where we learn Rob’s full name…a name that brings shock and awe to the eyes and faces of everyone who hears it.  Who is this guy?

One thing I noticed during this film was the great economy of the storytelling.  Scenes that might involve pages of dialogue in other movies are handled in seconds with either terse dialogue or sometimes none at all.  For example, there’s a scene in Amir’s apartment.  Rob wakes up on the couch to the sound of a fire alarm.  The camera tilts up and we see Amir standing on the counter trying to fan smoke away from the alarm.  Cut immediately to a kitchen table, Amir slides a plate in front of Rob, and he says sheepishly, “I don’t cook a lot.”  I can easily imagine that scene in some other movie involving a setup showing Amir trying to cook, burning something, trying to put the fire out, all very comic and probably well-done…but ultimately unnecessary.  Asking the viewer to do the occasional heavy lifting is not the worst thing in the world.  Pig is full of moments like this.  It’s a welcome change when it’s done right.

The screenplay is brilliant in other ways.  It convincingly leads you down one path where you think you can guess what’s about to happen, and then it throws a curveball or neatly sidesteps your expectations.  At least, it did mine.  Rob visits the house where he used to live, where he has a conversation with a small boy.  Where are the parents?  Who knows?  Doesn’t matter.  Amir talks about his family life, about his very successful father who doesn’t believe Amir can cut it in this business.  Later, there’s a scene where Rob and Amir cook a fancy meal for Amir’s father, and the dinner service for that food has a huge emotional payoff I did not expect, and which is worth the price of admission all by itself.

Is Pig a good movie just because it’s unique?  No.  But unique it is, and it is VERY good.  Cage gives one of his most understated performances in forever, so if you have been avoiding this one because you didn’t think you could take more Cage-ian histrionics, you don’t have to worry.  He’s very low-key.  There are a couple of moments where you can see the anger boiling deep within Rob, or when you might expect him to overturn a table or throw a glass of wine in someone’s face.  But it doesn’t happen, and that works for this unexpectedly touching film.

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH (2021)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Shaka King
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Martin Sheen
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 97% Certified Fresh

PLOT: In the late ‘60s, William O’Neal, offered a plea deal by the FBI, infiltrates the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers to gather intelligence on party Chairman Fred Hampton.


By the time it was over, Judas and the Black Messiah made me think of that scene in Psycho (1960) where Norman is cleaning up after his mother and the car starts to sink in the swamp and then stops…and Norman gets nervous.  At that moment, I started rooting for Norman, getting in his headspace: “C’mon, car, sink.”  I was empathizing with the bad guy.  Neat trick.

That’s how I felt during Judas and the Black Messiah.  Instinctively, I know I’m supposed to be rooting for one character, but the movie empathizes with the “villain” character so well that I found myself rooting for him, too.

In the late 1960s, Fred Hampton’s star was on the rise in the black community.  As portrayed in a sensational performance by Daniel Kaluuya, Hampton is a fiery, charismatic, passionate public speaker who publicly advocates armed patrols of Black Panthers in black neighborhoods to keep an eye out for harassment from white cops.  When he is made Chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers, the FBI takes an interest.  Well…Hoover takes an interest, which pretty much means the FBI followed suit regardless.

Meanwhile, a petty thief named Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is arrested by the FBI, who gives him a choice: serve a 5-year stretch for impersonating an FBI officer, or…go undercover into Fred Hampton’s Black Panther chapter and bring out good intel that will help them arrest Hampton.  O’Neal agrees, and what follows is an exercise in classic cinematic storytelling and misdirection, done up with glossy modern cinematography that looks like the best movie Oliver Stone never made.

(…actually, “misdirection” is not the right word.  I’m not sure what the right word is.  I’ll explain.)

Fred Hampton is clearly meant to be the hero of the film.  Hoover even refers to Hampton as a “messiah” of the black movement.  This all takes place a few years after both Dr. King and Malcolm X had been assassinated.  (If things had turned out differently, Fred Hampton’s name would be synonymous with King and Malcolm X, but it’s not, and based on this movie, that seems distinctly unfortunate and unfair.)  He boldly walks into a local meeting of white supremacists and, incredibly, turns them around to his way of thinking, using a brilliant metaphor of America as a house on fire.  If that moment is not based on fact, it should be.

So, if Hampton is the hero, then O’Neal is clearly meant to be the villain.  Hampton is the messiah of the title, so O’Neal is Judas, the traitor, the informer.  As a direct result of his intel [SPOILER ALERT], the FBI makes several arrests, including Hampton himself, and eventually initiates a raid during which Hampton is killed in his bed with his pregnant wife in the next room.  (This is all a matter of public record, though it’s interesting that it took this movie to really make me aware of it.)

But it’s easy to make a movie with a two-dimensional villain.  Judas and the Black Messiah does something much more difficult.  It asks us to empathize with both Hampton AND O’Neal.  We see the conflict in O’Neal’s face when Hampton promotes him to chief of security for their chapter.  We see O’Neal’s fear when he is recognized by a member of a local gang.  We see how few choices he really has in his various meetings with his FBI handler (Jesse Plemons), who constantly reminds him that, if he runs, they will find him and put him in jail.  Hampton says numerous times in the film that if he were to die for the cause, it would be a life well spent.  O’Neal has no such ideals.  I’d go as far to say that, if that were me in O’Neal’s shoes, I might do the same thing to stay out of jail.  I know my limits.

So, the entire film, I was pulled back and forth between admiration for Hampton and his cause and feeling anger towards O’Neal; and feeling terribly sad for O’Neal and what he’s essentially being forced to do by the FBI.  In other films depicting the Jesus story, I felt no such sympathy for the Judas character.  Director Shaka King accomplishes what so many other films do not: total alignment with one viewpoint while also demonstrating that not everything is so – forgive me – black and white.

Frankly, for me, the movie is worth watching just for the closing epilogue alone.  We get a glimpse of the real Bill O’Neal being interviewed for a real PBS documentary in 1989, and he is asked what he might tell his son about his role in the events surrounding Fred Hampton’s death.  His answer feels like something he’s rehearsed and said all his life.  And then there’s a closing subtitle…and it’s devastating.

I feel like there is more I could say, but it would involve getting into much more detail about several plot points, and I would prefer to leave them for the viewer to discover on their own.  Judas and the Black Messiah is worthy enough to stand with Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992), Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2014), and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013) as one of the best films ever made about the black experience in America.

A MOST VIOLENT YEAR

By Marc S. Sanders

If Michael Corleone had kept his promise to Kay to go strictly legitimate, he’d probably have become Abel Morales, the protagonist of A Most Violent Year, played exceedingly well by underrated Oscar Isaac.

Writer/Director J.C. Chandor sets his story in winter 1981, on record statistically recognized as what the film’s title literary suggests.  Therefore, it is a challenge for Morales to successfully bring his heating oil enterprise to a capital success when his competitors don’t play by the rules and hijack his product while threatening his able staff of truckers and salespeople. Then there is the stigma Morales must endure by being married to a reputed mob boss’ daughter, searingly played by Jessica Chastain, ready at a moment’s notice to call on her own family for help or to just pull a trigger herself.  Morales tried his hardest to keep her in check.  Furthermore, the industry he’s chosen is riddled with suspicion of fraud, embezzlement, racketeering, and underhanded tricks. All this warrants the DA to bring an endless array of indictments against Morales and his business, despite all the cooperation and legal activities that have been accomplished so far.

So why go through with this at all?  A lifetime has been invested.  Time of money and work to fight for an opportunity.  Abel knows this more than anything, and he will not surrender to deals from the DA or the mob.  He will not compromise despite the challenges.

Chandor’s film is well done.  It had been on my radar to watch since its release and yet it was not what I expected.  I was waiting for Abel’s widely seen beautiful camel overcoat to end up soaked in blood.  It never came to be.  That observation only suggests that A Most Violent Year does not promise on its descriptiveness.  On the contrary, it offers the setting so that we understand Abel’s conflict.  

A good story piles on one problem after another to keep a viewer compelled. Maybe one primary problem is wrapped up a little too neatly here, but no matter.  I also would have preferred better camera positioning from Chandor on occasion. Some characters who are being introduced for the first time are heard speaking off camera only to then be shown a close up of them with no more to say.  Happened more than twice and I can’t understand why.  I’m sure Chandor artistically intended it to be that way.  Yet, I didn’t like it.

Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain are great.  These are two actors rarely seen in the gossip rags.  So, they are more well known for selecting smart roles and stretching their flexibility for the parts they agree to take.  It’s refreshing. It’s why A Most Violent Year can be capably made with a great script (better than the film) amid all of the tentpole blockbuster sequels.  

It’s worth it to check out.

MOLLY’S GAME

By Marc S. Sanders

Despite being a little distracted by a drunk patron sitting next to me, I thought Molly’s Game was very good. It doesn’t measure up to The Social Network, and I feel justified in comparing the two because the sharp, fast dialogue follows what appears to be an intentionally similar narrative from writer, and here director, Aaron Sorkin.

Sorkin in his directorial debut uses great techniques for film editing to match the beats of his dialogue.  His opening voiceover of Jessica Chastain as Molly describing the ultimate worst sports experience will get your heartbeat racing.  It draws you into the film right away.

Chastain is good, but maybe a little over the top.  I needed a little more convincing that she was actually this brilliant, inventive and resourceful woman who was also considered one of the world’s greatest skiers.  Can’t put my finger on it but something was missing with her playing the Molly Bloom role.  Was she really holding her own against these high stakes guys who take big risks in her personally constructed poker ring?  I’m just not sure.

Felt the same about Kevin Costner in the role of her father.  He’s supposed to be an incredibly brilliant psychologist and an intimidating patriarch.  Yet Costner doesn’t fit that mold for me here.  Couldn’t feel the pressure from Dad on his daughter.  Someone else might have been stronger.

Michael Cera too.  I think he is playing a combination variation of Tobey Maguire & Leonardo DiCaprio, two of the most famous celebs that participated in the real Molly Bloom’s underground poker games, but Michael Cera?  Really?  He doesn’t carry the weight or looks of guys like that.  There just was not enough power or presence from him.

None of these actors were the worst options for this cast, I just think the film could have used more appropriate performers. There was more appropriate talent out there, I’m sure.

Idris Elba is great, however.  He’s blessed with an awesome Sorkin monologue in the 3rd act of the film, and he hits every note.

A great script.  A great story worthy of being a big screen film and it’s got me interested to learn more about the real Molly Bloom, including reading her novel.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

By Marc S. Sanders

Whether it is Gone Baby Gone, or The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, or even Good Will Hunting, Casey Affleck is an actor who never compromises for glamour or grandeur in his roles. He will look ugly, dress down or be the most unlikable of characters to preserve the authenticity of a movie’s script. I imagine good directors just let him loose and film him with whatever he comes up with on the spot. It would be a tribute to his talent to do so. Here, in this Best Picture nominee, he is incredibly moving and quietly unhinged. He’s excellent.

Manchester By The Sea is a heavy, dramatic script held together by a simple story. Affleck plays Lee Chandler who will probably be destined to endure one unspeakable tragedy after another for the rest of his life; hammered away until it seems there’s no way to ever recover from inner demons of guilt and sadness.

At best, his recently departed brother (the always reliable Kyle Chandler) blesses him with an opportunity by making Lee the guardian to his 16 year old son, Patrick, played by Lucas Heges in one of the best screen debuts I can remember. He’s an eerie doppelgänger for a young Matt Damon.

Patrick needs Lee, and Lee, who doesn’t know it yet needs Patrick.

Manchester By The Sea takes its time to set up story and character, and maybe that is its downfall. People get in their cars, they shovel snow, they get out of their cars, they shovel more snow. All this set up for a 2 hour and 15-minute film might handicap the pacing, but I can’t think of a better way to improve upon its heart wrenchingly real narrative. The tragedy at the center of Lee’s turmoil is difficult to accept.

Michelle Williams as Lee’s wife is proves once again that she is an amazing actor finding her own unique method for a penultimate crying scene. She is underused. I would have liked to see more of her in this film.

Manchester By The Sea was nominated for Best Picture, Actor, Director, Screenplay and Supporting Actress. All well-deserved but maybe not worthy of the awards. (Affleck won the award, actually, and so did Kenneth Lonergan for his screenplay.) I think there were a few better nominees in each of these categories. Still, had it not been for the Oscar nods I probably wouldn’t have watched it. All I can say is, I’m glad I did.