CALVARY (2014)

Posted in JIMMY ON MOVIES: Thoughts on Films, The Folks Who Make Them, & Those Who Love Them, MOVIES TO LOOK FORWARD TO: Coming Soon or Now Playing In A Theater Near You... on August 31st, 2014 by Jim Delaney

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July 22nd at Landmark Theatres Kendall Sq. Cinema, Cambridge, MA.

Written & Directed by John Michael McDonagh, starring Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Isaach De Bankolé, Orla O’Rourke, M. Emmet Walsh, and Aidan Gillen.

Regardless of the fact that I created this site to discuss movies that I like & love, and hopefully that you like & love as well, I make a pretty sincere effort to resist hyperbole. That said … I damn sure hope that Ireland recognizes Brendan Gleeson as a national treasure. As much as Toshirô Mifune has done for Japan, Marcello Mastroianni for Italy, or Max von Sydow for Sweden, Gleeson manages to embody the strongest and most honest and the weakest and most vulnerable in his nation. CALVARY is his second film with writer/director McDonagh. I was a big fan of their previous film, THE GUARD, but that movie left me inadequately prepared for their latest collaboration.

In the opening sequence of CALVARY, we meet Father James (Gleeson) in a claustrophobicly tight shot on his face in a confessional booth.calvary-brendan-gleeson-kelly-reilly-02-636-380 A man’s voice through the screen tells Father James that he had been molested as a child by a priest over several years. The voice will never have his revenge on is attacker, as that priest is now dead, so this voice has decided he will take his revenge on Father James by the following Sunday. Father James is nearly but not completely certain who in his small town had just threatened him. We follow Father James for the rest of the week as he attempts to reconcile with his estranged daughter (he had been married before joining the priesthood), shepherd a turbulent lovers’ triangle who do no want his help, and manage a potentially large donation to the church by a local banker. Among other things. Busy week for a condemned man!

The most immediate surprise of CALVARY, given the threat that overhangs every minute, is how damn funny it often is. This is by no means a comedy, it is a searching drama that takes a much more bleak worldview than THE GUARD, but Irish gallows humor erupts in the most unexpected moments. If you’ve ever been in a funeral wake, and shared some fond memory of the8099447410_f6cdda0651_c deceased that made yourself or others laugh just a little too loud, then you have experienced the sort of unsettling humor and intensity that this film evokes. Humor and scorn are drawn from the focus on individual characters, as well as the scope of larger entities such as the church, banks, local government, and your friends and neighbors.

CALVARY is that rare film about practitioners of faith that makes no attempt to offer you comforting platitudes disguised as answers. Its success is in its clarification of the questions. MV5BMjAyODAxMzQyMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwODI0MjEyOQ@@._V1_SX640_SY720_ In what will probably turn out to be the most unforgettable sequence I’ll see in any movie this year, we see a pre-teen girl walking alone on a dirt road. Father James crosses her path and walks with her. She knows him and is not at all nervous about walking with him; we as an audience have come to know him, and we trust him on this road. And. Yet. Given the past few decades of sexual abuse scandals within the Catholic church, locally in Ireland and elsewhere around the globe, all we can think of is the myriad reasons that this scenario could go wrong. What if he says something the she misunderstands, repeats, and creates the illusion of impropriety? What if she is a flat-out liar and implicates Father James in some behavior. What if we don’t know him as well as we think we do, and the story is about to veer in a totally unexpected direction? What if neither of them do anything untoward, film2-1_7-31-14 but a witness with their own perspective (or agenda?) reports seeing something other than what happened? This scene was more riveting than anything I’ve seen in an action adventure or horror film in longer than I can immediately recall.

I was deeply fortunate to attend a screening organized by the Boston Irish Film Festival that was followed by a Q&A with Brendan Gleeson & John Michael McDonagh. The scene I just mentioned, and several others, were turned inside out by the audience’s questions and held up to the light by the guests. There was a realization on both sides of the microphone that respect for and trust in authority figures is in really bad shape, with really good reason, and that facing these questions head on in absence of political correctness as this film does may be a crucial tool in reversing this phenomenon.Screen Shot 2014-08-31 at 12.49.50 AM At the end of the film I was aware that I’d seen a unique and powerful piece of filmmaking. At the end of the Q&A I was aware that I had witnessed a social experiment, one whose impact I hope will grow over time if this movie can achieve a measure of cult status. Pretty impressive work for a film that was shot on the sort of abbreviated shooting schedule usually reserved for episodic television.

There is so much more I want to tell you about CALVARY, but this would require either spoilers of the film, or the revelation of way more personal information than you want from a movie review article. If you’ve checked the IMDb message boards then you’ve seen how divisive this movie has been.calvary02 All I should tell you is that I am firmly in the camp of supporters, and while I don’t expect that you will enjoy CALVARY, I think you will be moved by it. Sometimes movies can do more than entertain, or even inform; at best they can crystallize the human experience into an hour-glass.

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BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (2012)

Posted in MOVIES TO LOOK FORWARD TO: Coming Soon or Now Playing In A Theater Near You... on September 3rd, 2012 by Jim Delaney


Directed by Benh Zeitlin, adapted by Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin from Alibar’s 1-act play JUICY & DELICIOUS, starring Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Gina Montana and Levy Easterly.

It’s always both a thrilling and disappointing experience when you see a nearly perfect movie in the first half of the year. Thrilling because you’ve experienced something transformative, but disappointing because you expect nothing else that year will measure up. I have seen BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD twice in screenings sponsored by the Independent Film Festival of Boston, first at The Brattle Theater in Cambridge, and next at The Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline. I saw it a third time a month into its general release. I can’t tell you the last time I saw a movie three times in a theater; it was probably over a decade ago. Under ordinary circumstances, I would have composed my thoughts and posted this article last month, or earlier. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is, however, anything but ordinary circumstances. As I walked home from the Brattle after that first viewing, my mother called. I could barely tell her the title without my voice cracking. When was the last time you saw a grown man walking down the street blithering with a quivering lip and a lump in his throat to his mother? That is what this movie can do to you.

Without getting overtly social or political about it, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD tells the story of those who will be America’s frontline casualties in the escalation of climate change. Quvenzhané Wallis plays Hushpuppy, a young girl who lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry), in a collection of bayou islands south of New Orleans, herein known as The Bathtub. Hushpuppy and Wink live in a neighborhood where folks are born, live, and die mostly off the grid. They cook by outdoor grill, there isn’t a TV in site; the only traces of electricity are the refrigerators that keep the beer cold.

If there is a social message at play, it is obscured by the sort of layers of subtext and metaphor found in some of your better science fiction films. Hushpuppy learns in school about ancient cave paintings depicting humans hunting aurochs bulls, a lesson creatively delivered via a tattoo. She doesn’t need school to teach her about global climate change; she sees it in the water level rising against the levy that protects New Orleans, the levy that leaves the Bathtub to sink. In Hushpuppy’s imagination she sees a family of aurochs frozen in the arctic ice. She also sees the aurochs released when their berg cracks free, floats south, and melts. The Q&A sessions in the screenings I attended drew multiple interpretations of what the aurochs stood for. Far be it from me, or the film, to make the meaning of these giant beasts abundantly clear for you. Part of what makes this story so compelling is its ability to incite viewers to insert their own ideology, however accurately, into the lives of these characters.

The Bathtub’s folks are both the original 99%, and the original Tea Party. You won’t have to look too far on the IMDB message boards to find kneejerk reactions of one political extreme or another. There are liberals who feel that the Bathtub’s population needs to be rescued and given access to the suburban dream of Target and Starbucks. There are conservatives who see them as abusers of the welfare system. Both are mistaken: the Bathtub doesn’t want to be rescued, it wants to be left the hell alone, as we see the day FEMA comes knocking on their doors. This is a group that fends for itself; we never see them cashing a welfare check, we see them raising their own produce and livestock. We also see them pouring out large enough nets of seafood that it is more reasonable to assume that they make their living on a boat rather than off the dole.

Some see this is a film about African Americans, but this ignores other facets. Hushpuppy & Wink are African American, as are several supporting characters, but there are a roughly equal number of white characters living in The Bathtub. This place reminds me of stories my dad, The Fats, told me of growing up in Passaic, NJ during the Depression. He lived within the same neighborhood as Italian Catholics, Irish Protestants, African Americans, Jews, Cubans, Asians, Central Americans, and a family who ran a Halal meat market. Passaic in the 1930’s and the Bathtub now, and this film, transcend race or gender or generation. These characters and this story are sewn together by the same thread that tied my dad’s neighborhood. In the best of times and the worst of times, this is one city.

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is more akin to the character driven films of 1970’s American cinema, and the sensual location experiences of the past few decades of European films, than a contemporary boardroom generated studio product. There is a story here, but it is so thoroughly seen through Hushpuppy’s eyes that the audience needs to give it the same latitude we would give any child attempting to tell a complex story. The reward for your patience is the poetry of Huspuppy’s perception, and Quvenzhané Wallis’ relentless ability to convince us that this is simply the way she sees the world. That innocent and enlightened perception is never more evident than in a flashback sequence whereHushpuppy tells us about her missing mother. The entire journey of this film is Hushpuppy confronting mortality: her mother’s, her father’s, the planet’s, and her place in all three.

Benh Zeitlin avoids most of the saccharine pitfalls that a coming of age story could have fallen into. He often shoots from Hushpuppy’s eye level, making Dwight Henry’s Wink as imposing as the imaginary aurochs. This film is also a feat of low budget sound design like we haven’t heard since THE HURT LOCKER. Movies with one hundred times Zeitlin’s budget are too often tales full of sound and fury signifying nothing. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD features a hurricane sequence as violent as any of the weather sequences in TWISTER, but here the intensity is achieved almost entirely through sound. Hushpuppy’s metaphysical quest in search of her mother is a stirring use of silence and Felliniesque exaggeration of sound and music.

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD takes you to a corner of the United States that few have ever seen, and explores what is strongest in our national character, to expose our shared humanity. That is mighty ambitious for any film crew, but especially so for a cast and crew of which many were making their first feature length film. I don’t know yet if this is my favorite movie of the year, but it is the most emotionally exhausting and hauntingly expressive movie I’ve seen in a long long time.

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THE MUPPETS (2011)

Posted in MOVIES TO LOOK FORWARD TO: Coming Soon or Now Playing In A Theater Near You... on November 30th, 2011 by Jim Delaney


Thursday November 10, 2011 at the Regal Fenway Stadium, Boston, MA.

Directed by James Bobin, written by Jason Segel & Nicholas Stoller, starring Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, and The Muppets.

I love the Muppets. When I was in preschool I was too preoccupied with SPEED RACER and JOHNNY QUEST to notice SESAME STREET. I was aware of SESAME STREET, but I didn’t watch it. My first real connection to Jim Henson’s characters came when I entered the first grade, and they entered prime time. Eventually I grew to appreciate the Disneyesque optimism of SESAME STREET, but I always preferred the Looney Tunes rambunctiousness of THE MUPPET SHOW. Because I love the Muppets, I hold them to a higher standard than entertainment for which I have less of an affinity; happily their first feature film in twelve years is worthy of that standard.

The script for the new film apparently had an extensive development period. It helps to have writers who are true believers in the world Jim Henson created a generation or two ago. It helps even more that one of those writers is an established television star who also has a string of mostly very successful films to his credit. Jason Segel‘s puppeteer character in FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, which he also wrote, hinted at his affinity for The Muppets. If someone loved the work of Robert E. Howard and John Buscema as much as Segel clearly loves Henson’s work, this summer’s revival of CONAN THE BARBARIAN would have been an amazing movie.

The core story of THE MUPPETS is shrewdly cobbled together from several archetypes of both cinematic style and classic story telling. Segel’s character Gary has a brother named Walter who is straight out of BILLY ELLIOT or RUDY. Walter so loves the Muppets that the greatest possible joy he could imagine is the chance that he might one day meet them. What separates Walter from Billy Elliot and Rudy Ruettiger, and indeed from Gary, is that Walter actually is a Muppet! This is part of what makes Muppet films unique: even as they embrace archetypes, like the underdog runt searching for his place in the world, they turn them on their head and subvert them to the Muppets’ own rules. In this story a human man and a Muppet can be brothers — and no one notices this as odd!

A staple element of ensemble buddy movies ranging from Frank Sinatra’s Danny Ocean up to, well, George Clooney’s Danny Ocean is the reunion of old friends for a new purpose. It worked in THE WILD BUNCH, it worked when Jake & Elwood Blues got the band back together, and it works for Kermit. In fact, it works doubly so for Kermit. Kermit’s quest to round up his stray friends propels this basic story of the Muppets’ rallying to save their old theater from their 70’s variety show days. The reunion angle simultaneously allows for the introduction of the Muppets to audiences too young to recall their last theatrical entry while addressing themes of aging and imposed obsolescence that resonate with anyone old enough to have watched the original primetime airings of THE MUPPET SHOW. Reminiscent of how Kal-El must have felt upon reading Lois Lane’s editorial on a world without Superman in SUPERMAN RETURNS, this film finds Kermit realizing that television has knocked the Muppets to the rock bottom of the hip-n-trendy scale. Kermit’s reunion with Miss Piggy culminates in a stroll through Paris, poignantly acknowledging that Muppets have to work as hard as humans to make love and friendship last, in a scene that would seem very much at home in a Woody Allen film. Each of these moments manage both the easy fix of keeping the pace moving, and the difficult trick of perfectly nailing the tone for each scene to keep audiences of all ages engaged.

All of this classic film structure aside, it’s wonderful to see the Muppets have not lost their touch for lunacy. They were expert practitioners of metafiction before that term was applied to film or television. Probably the best example of this is the song “Man or Muppet,” sung by Gary and Walter. As the man and Muppet brothers explore their existential void in the song, they cross into each others crisis, and transcend the film in a sequence reminiscent of some of the more groundbreaking 80’s music videos. Segel’s over the top Meatloaf-esque operatic wailing both parodies heart-on-your-sleeve pop songs and gives this oddball tune a ring of truth. I saw this movie in a screening geared toward college students. The general mumbling and rampant texting around me during this scene left the impression that this audience was more laughing at this moment than with it. This was a sequence worthy of The Marx Bros or Mel Brooks, but unless you are schooled in Groucho and Mongo, the absurd hilarity and sincere subtext of this song will not fully resonate.

Rumors on the internets about a “surprise cameo” were apparently referring to a moment in “Man or Muppet,” though the entire movie is laden with cameos, from Mickey Rooney to Rico Rodriguez. I’m glad that these cameos were not strictly reserved for celebrities, but also for lesser known characters from the Muppet universe. Personally I was a big fan of MUPPETS TONIGHT, the mid 90’s attempt to revitalize the Muppets on primetime TV. One of the characters from that revival, the dimwitted and overly confident lounge singer Johnny Fiama, appears during this song as Jason Segel’s Muppet doppleganger. The only thing that could have made Johnny’s appearance better would be if they found room for his angry monkey bodyguard Sal Minella; here’s hoping there’s room for Sal & Johnny in the next Muppet movie!

I’m a fan of divisive movies; I’ll always prefer a movie that folks either love or hate, even if I’m among those who hate it, to a movie that we are all equally ambivalent about. If you follow the IMDb message boards, you’ll see that THE MUPPETS has no shortage of detractors who bemoan nearly every Muppet effort since the passing of Jim Henson. I’m also a die hard STAR TREK fan; just as I acknowledge that the primary mission of the most recent STAR TREK film was to acquire a new generation of fans, such is the case with this film. My audience full of college kids texting each other were mostly born after Jim Henson died. If you grew up wit THE MUPPET SHOW on TV like I did, you’ve already had your fair share of Muppet films. These are the classic Muppets for a new generation, and they accomplish that job with characteristic style and surprising grace. THE MUPPETS will not change your life or make you a better person, but it just might open your kids’ minds the way SESAME STREET and THE MUPPET SHOW did yours.

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RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011)

Posted in MOVIES TO LOOK FORWARD TO: Coming Soon or Now Playing In A Theater Near You... on August 13th, 2011 by Jim Delaney


Saturday August 6, 2011 at the AMC Boston Common.

Directed by Rupert Wyatt, starring Andy Serkis, James Franco, Freida Pinto, David Oyelowo, Tom Felton, John Lithgow & Brian Cox. My favorite living film composer Patrick Doyle provides the score.

The gateway to wildly imaginative movies for most nerds in my demographic was STAR WARS. I would never deny the profound influence George Lucas’ 1977 spectacle had on my childhood, but my indoctrination into nerd-dom came in 1973, by a double feature of CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. The Apes had been to my early childhood development what Sesame Street was to most other kids. Roddy McDowall played two of my earliest heroes, Dr. Cornelius in the first three Apes films, and his son Caesar in my double feature. I never missed an opportunity to see the Apes films on TV; a live action PLANET OF THE APES CBS TV show continued new stories through 1974, with NBC’s animated RETURN TO THE PLANET OF THE APES concluding the Apes saga in 1975. STAR WARS came along right when I needed it, though the Apes remained integral to my sense of wonder.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is the happiest surprise this summer. This story is essentially a bridge between ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, which ended with Caesar’s birth, and CONQUEST updated to the 21st century.
Opening on a jungle hunt wherein Caesar’s mother is captured for lab use, RISE moves to the Gen Sys laboratory in San Francisco, where Dr. Will Rodman (James Franco) attempts to develop DNA altering treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. Will’s big-pharma supervisor Jacobs (David Oyelowo) sees Will’s lab as a potential gold mine, but Will has a more personal stake in his research: his father Charles (John Lithgow) is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Caesar’s mother undergoes Will’s latest attempt at a cure shortly before Caesar is born. The therapy alters Caesar’s DNA; since Caesar does not suffer Alzheimer’s debilitating effect on the brain, the therapy enhances his healthy brain. We follow Caesar’s formative years, raised away from the lab in the Rodman’s home, as he learns to communicate via sign language. Will’s veterinarian girlfriend Caroline (Freida Pinto) helps the two generations of Rodmans raise Caesar. Another father and son (Brian Cox and Tom Felton) who run a primate sanctuary round out the major human characters. Humans play an important part in RISE, but Caesar is front and center in this story, as he was in CONQUEST and BATTLE. Caesar’s quest takes him from birth in captivity, through education in the Rodman home, to incarceration in the primate sanctuary following a series of misfortunes. His advanced mind perceives both injustice at the abuse of his fellow primate inmates and a plan to end their suffering.

Most critics unhappy with this film cite a common (and increasingly tedious) complaint that has been aimed at genre films in general, and Apes films in particular, any time these films expand an area of special effects. Say it with me: “The human characters are not as well developed as the ape characters!” It shows a disappointing lack of imagination, and understanding of what the film medium is capable of, to assume that human characters must be the best developed for a story to succeed. Submitted for your approval, two magnificent films by Jean-Jacques Annaud: THE BEAR (1988) and TWO BROTHERS (2004). I don’t know about you, but when I went to a LASSIE or BENJI movie as a kid, I went to see the puppy not the humans.

Annaud’s films and the dog adventures show us what can be done with well trained animals, but two advances in the film medium further the notion that human actors can play powerfully evocative non-human characters. The first of these advances is motion capture technology, which allows a human actor to be filmed, and then a digital character of anything imaginable to be animated onto that human’s performance. The second, and I would suggest equally important, is an English actor named Andy Serkis. Genre fans recognize Serkis as the man who, working with motion capture technology, was able to perform the 3 foot tall emaciated Gollum in the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy as well as the 60 foot ape Kong in the 2005 remake of KING KONG. When you see rage of fear or sorrow or valor on Caesar’s face, that is not simply clever CGI, that is Andy Serkis emoting and the technology making him appear simian. Serkis is either at the forefront of something very new in acting or something very ancient. Either way he will soon be as recognized for changing the face of film acting as significantly as Meryl Streep did a generation ago and Marlon Brando did two generations ago. When I see an Apes movie, I am only passingly interested in human characters, I want more apes! Andy Serkis delivers a charismatic and intelligent Caesar that quite possibly surpasses even Roddy McDowall for creating an eager suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience. This alone is worth the price of a ticket.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES tampers somewhat with the chronology of the Apes canon, most noticeably in how Caesar acquired his increased intelligence, and the circumstances of his interaction with humans. Nonetheless the story embraces the entire previous saga, with bold gestures obvious to most viewers, as well as subtler references apparent only to core fans. Tom Felton gets to deliver a few cutely placed quotes from Charlton Heston’s Taylor in the 1968 film that will be caught by anyone familiar with pop culture. Devoted fans are treated to the fulfillment of a legend, recounted by Cornelius (McDowall) in ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, to explain how apes rose to the top of the food chain. I am resisting like hell to share a Spoiler; suffice it to say that we actually see Cornelius’ parable played out, and it is even more intense than I imagined all those years ago. I nearly jumped out of my seat. With the possible exception of HARRY POTTER the normally stoic 10 a.m. Boston crowd cheered this scene like nothing I’ve heard for another film this year.

Among the recent litany of remakes (or reimagined reboots) RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is most similar to Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN. These films begin with a story with which we are already familiar, but distill the focus to a single character, treating the new film as a true biography of a fictional character. Zombie’s HALLOWEEN expands the first ten minutes of John Carpenter’s 1978 original to nearly a full hour, focusing entirely on how Michael Meyers came to be a serial killer, before condensing the bulk of Carpenter’s story into the action filled third act. The first two acts of RISE explores Caesar’s previously unseen life between the third (ESCAPE) and fourth (CONQUEST) Apes films of the 70’s, with the final act taking story liberties with the whole of CONQUEST. Inasmuch as this film alters the Apes timeline, it maintains the APES film tradition of social and political commentary. Eric Greene’s excellent 1996 book “Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics, and Popular Culture” examines reflections of 1960’s and 70’s unrest and upheaval in each chapter in the Apes saga. RISE offers insights into the science vs. commerce equation in medicine, the marginalization of the infirm, and even prison reform via the ape sanctuary. As a lifelong fan of the earlier films I wholeheartedly enjoyed this new vision of The Planet Of The Apes. I anxiously await the next battle in Caesar’s revolution.

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CITY OF LIFE & DEATH aka “Nanjing! Nanjing!” (2009)

Posted in MOVIES TO LOOK FORWARD TO: Coming Soon or Now Playing In A Theater Near You... on June 18th, 2011 by Jim Delaney

From the Landmark Kendall Sq. Theater, Cambridge, MA on Thursday June 9, 2011.

Written & Directed by Chuan Lu, starring Ye Liu, Yuanyuan Gao, Wei Fan, Hideo Nakaizumi and John Paisley, featuring cinematography by Yu Cao.

Whether as a lunchtime gathering between coworkers, or online as a movie blog or social media community, The Lunch Movie’s raison d’être is to celebrate the good stuff. There are too many good and great movies out there to bother writing negatively about movies that do not spark my enthusiasm. I make an effort to resist generic hyperbole of the “best” or “worst” variety. Once the provenance of know-it-all nerds, like THE SIMPSONS’ Comic Book Guy, these words have been made nearly redundant by critics more adept at synopsizing than analysis. Nonetheless CITY OF LIFE & DEATH stands apart even among a list of movies I love. It is the most profoundly haunting war movie I’ve encountered since APOCALYPSE NOW.

CITY OF LIFE & DEATH was shot in color and printed in black & white suggesting, at first glance, news reels of the era similar to Movietone news. The first hour details the Japanese invasion of Nanking in 1937 where thousands of Chinese soldiers were quickly cut down while fighting to hold their nation’s capital. That initial newsreel sense of the battle sequences expands rapidly to an awareness of extraordinary artistry. We’ve seen this more in still photography from war correspondents than we have in motion pictures. Composition within each frame is as strikingly beautiful as the subject matter is unnerving. “Epic” is a word that has become as squandered as “best” or “worst.” The massive scope of these street-to-street battles, on the scale of A BRIDGE TOO FAR and the finale of FULL METAL JACKET, should serve as a reminder of the true definition of “epic.”

As imposing as this widescreen doomscape is Chuan balances an intimacy with his characters, reminiscent of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, with the urgency of hand-held vérité style as claustrophobic as THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS. In the crush of battle we rarely catch the names of the combatants with whom we become acquainted. Still they become familiar to us even amid the chaos. The few detractors I’ve come across find only the pace of this film to complain about. Everyone acknowledges the breathtaking photography, and compelling performances, but some find certain parts of the story too slow. It is in these quieter moments that the plight of the characters is seared into your soul. There is very little music here, just the dull tap of bullets and hollow thunder of grenades, followed by pin-drop silence. You may find yourself catching your breath along with the soldiers for fear that breathing too deeply could give away their position. The sincere humanity imbued in the Chinese defenders and even some within the Japanese assault, soldiers we may know only briefly before they are killed, draws us ever deeply into this tragic story. The audience is placed in a position similar to the participants by the story’s ensemble structure; any character we embrace could die at any moment, regardless or even in spite of our hope that they may emerge as the protagonist.

The second hour, spanning early 1938 after Nanking has fallen, is where CITY OF LIFE & DEATH may become too much to bear even for those who consider themselves aficionados of war films. Perhaps even more than the Nazi Holocaust or the Armenian Genocide, Nanking is notorious for an unfathomable number of rapes perpetrated within the first few months of the siege. The film manages to be as harrowing for its depiction of broken and battered women, attempting to comfort each other after being assaulted, as it would have been had it lingered in lurid detail of the crimes as they were committed. Yuanyuan Gao plays Miss Jiang, a character inspired by Iris Chang, whose book “The Rape of Nanking” is among the better known accounts of this battle to have been translated into English. Miss Jiang stands, often alone, as the last line of defense against sexual aggression. She tries to warn Chinese women how to avoid drawing the attention of Japanese soldiers. She is tasked with negotiating which women and children will be spared and at what cost. Through Miss Jiang we experience how each woman was forced to sell pieces of her soul for one more day breathing, with only so many pieces to her soul to spare, and so many days she can survive these conditions.

John Paisley plays John Rabe, a true life German businessman, who helped establish the Nanking Safety Zone to protect civilians from Japanese soldiers. In the film Rabe works with Miss Jiang, as well as his own Chinese assistant Mr. Tang (Wei Fan), to protect his workers and their families. John Rabe has been called The Schindler of China; that coupled with this being a black & white film has drawn inevitable and somewhat appropriate comparisons to SCHINDLER’S LIST. Rabe remains an important secondary character, but Miss Jiang and Mr. Tang emerge as the civilian opponents to the invading army, and it is through their steps and missteps that a traditional tale of redemption is carved from all this random sorrow.

The brutal majority within the Japanese forces is embodied by Captain Durdin (Sam Voutas) while Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi) represents the dwindling core of Japanese soldiers who feel their souls diminished with every day they occupy Nanking. Most of the Japanese soldiers are seen as happy to rape and pillage and wipe the Chinese off the face of the earth. Kadokawa stands for a few who realize that they will never be able to return home and think of themselves as human.

Much as I admire CITY OF LIFE & DEATH for having the spirit to be artistically ambitious, and the technical skill to realize those ambitions, it gives me hope on a more practical level as well. Let’s face it, the average American viewer thinks Karate movies and Kung Fu movies are the same thing, and wouldn’t be able to spot the samurai movie between 13 ASSASSINS and RED CLIFF. Euro-centric American audiences seldom recognize that the history and culture of China and Japan are as disparate as Italy and Germany. While pundits like Donald Trump and Lou Dobbs sound alarms about China, younger characters in this movie remind us that there are many Chinese still living who remember Nanking, or who lost family there. The perseverance and determination of Miss Jiang, Mr. Tang and legions of nameless soldiers reveal a Chinese national character that might be less concerned with Soviet style world domination and more concerned with making sure no one is ever again able to threaten them as one neighbor had done. In the end whether you are Chinese or Japanese, Italian or German, or any hyphenate American you will be humbled by this story’s answer to the question “What price survival?”

I thoroughly understand how excessive it sounds to place a recent film in the pantheon with not only the most legendary war films but some of the more significant achievements in the film medium. This is no exaggeration. CITY OF LIFE & DEATH gave me that sense, which occurs a handful of times per decade, that I was experiencing something that would alter my perception regarding cinema and war and the value of life itself. It accomplished this within the first act.

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HENRY’S CRIME (2010)

Posted in MOVIES TO LOOK FORWARD TO: Coming Soon or Now Playing In A Theater Near You... on April 21st, 2011 by Jim Delaney


Wednesday April 13, 2011 at The Brattle Theater, Cambridge, MA.
Directed by Malcolm Venville, starring Keanu Reeves, Verga Farmiga, James Caan, Bill Duke and Peter Stormare.

HENRY’S CRIME is a happy little surprise. It’s not going to make you a better person. It’s not going to open your eyes to anything. It’s not trying to. It is trying to entertain you without insulting your intelligence. There will always be a contingent of people who see Keanu Reeves as little more than one half of Wyld Stallyns. You know if you’re one of them if you smirked or giggled at the thought of a Keanu Reeves movie not insulting your intelligence. More on that later. The beauty of this film is the simplicity of the story and the quiet grace of Malcolm Venville’s staging of it. As he’d done in the recent 44 INCH CHEST Venville shows a keen interest in the decision process of his characters. He also has a rare knack for bringing a melancholy note to comic moments and vice versa. One of Venville’s more evocative touches are moments when he films Henry Torne (Reeves) in confined spaces, or on the inside looking out, as he ponders how to get to that place he’d rather be.

The story opens with Henry working the graveyard shift as a toll booth operator in Buffalo, NY. Before his morning is over, Henry is tricked by friends into driving the getaway car for a bank heist, then abandoned to take the fall. Henry spends the next three years in prison, where his cellmate Max (James Caan, looking very Joe Biden these days) points out the inequity of Henry doing the time without having done the crime. Upon release Henry devises a deceptively simple plan to tunnel into the very same bank through an adjacent theater. You might expect I’d say “from here mayhem and hilarity ensue.” Not so much, and at least in this case, it makes for a better movie.

HENRY’S CRIME has a reasonable share of big laughs, but being in the company of screwball characters who felt like they would be at home in a 1970’s Peter Falk movie, I found myself smiling through nearly the entire film. There are added bonuses, including one of the more engaging opposites attract romantic relationships I’ve seen in quite a while, and a song score comprising tunes from the Daptone Records catalog. Henry inadvertently meets Julie (Vera Farmiga) twice as he plans his crime. First: she damn near runs him over with her car when he is observing the bank. Second: while casing the theater he discovers she is rehearsing Ranyevskaya for an impending production of THE CHERRY ORCHARD. Neither of them has any interest in the other. At Max’s urging Henry pursues the role of Lopahkin to gain access to the dressing room nearest the bank. This places Henry and Julie in close enough quarters that one of them is bound to step in a pile of love. Daptone funk & soul tunes lend a unique and comforting aura to every scene they grace. This music distinguishes the movie, and Henry and Julie’s relationship, from an endless list of films that recycle the same dozen or so Motown standards or nuggets from the Woodstock era. There is nothing about this film that would make you believe it could happen nor is there anything so ridiculous as to strain the suspension of disbelief. What ties together all the tiny gems, be they comedic or romantic or photographic or musical, is that they make the story fun enough that you will want to believe Henry’s scheme just might work.

HENRY’S CRIME is the the first film produced by Keanu Reeves and Stephen Hamel’s Company Films. Henry is more than a role Reeves took for a paycheck, this is a script he developed for a few years, brought to life by a crew he helped to hire. This is his best chance so far to showcase his strengths. Many critics and fans have said that his best roles, SPEED and THE MATRIX cited most frequently, are those that do not require him to speak too often. Some feel his dialog delivery is wooden but this ignores what separates Reeves from current acting styles. Tony Soprano once lamented the loss of “men like Gary Cooper, y’know, the strong silent type.” Keanu Reeves’ best roles are the strong, silent and smart type; men who observe and then do. Henry Torne uses clipped sentences if he speaks in full sentences at all, in contrast to his stage role as Lopahkin, a character who is far more certain about the damage he is willing to cause to get what he wants. If you pay attention to Reeves’ eyes and the way he carries himself (compare Henry withering in a corner in his jail cell to Jack Traven figuring out the bomb under the bus) you will see the dimensions he can bring that are not on the page. THE LAKE HOUSE would never have worked without an actor who could be simultaneously introspective and charming.

One final thought about the man who was Mnemonic. Reeves passed on millions for SPEED 2 because he’d promised to tour with his Dogstar band mates. Maybe he was preserving his artistic integrity, maybe he was showing loyalty to his friends, either way it was a smart move. Where some stars demand only lead roles regardless of how weak the film is, since I LOVE YOU TO DEATH and MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING through SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE to THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE, Reeves has frequently taken supporting roles for the opportunity to work with strong casts. Scoff if you must, but few actors work harder to stretch their range, and give the audience our time and money’s worth more than the guy who is one half of Company Films.

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THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU (2011)

Posted in MOVIES TO LOOK FORWARD TO: Coming Soon or Now Playing In A Theater Near You... on March 7th, 2011 by Jim Delaney


Friday March 4, 2011 at the AMC Boston Common 19 theater.

Adapted & Directed by George Nolfi, starring Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery and Terrence Stamp.

A few years ago my screenwriter buddy Evan pointed out how rare it is for any Hollywood studio movie to not included a love story. He argued this applied to all Hollywood movies not merely to romances and romantic comedies. The devil’s advocate nature of Evan’s and my friendship demanded that I try to disprove his theory. Guess what? He was right, and he knows I hate to admit that he’s right, but there it is. Sure, exceptions exist, but few enough that they prove the rule. With the realization of how obviously right Evan was came the realization of how lazily constructed most of these near sub-plot love stories are, how little they have to say about love, and what a redundant part of the overall story they have become. So few romantic comedies manage to be romantic and comedic at all let alone simultaneously. So few half-conceived adventures, westerns, mysteries, fantasies or standard dramas are made any more memorable by the same tired opposites attract situation blossoming off in one corner of the story.

THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU is no exception to Evan’s rule, but with an enigmatic romance deep in the core of the story, it is a luminous exception to the movies I dismiss within Evan’s rule. The film’s engine comes from Philip K. Dick’s short story ADJUSTMENT TEAM, published in 1954 in Orbit Science Fiction, one of the pulp magazine harbingers of THE TWILIGHT ZONE and THE OUTER LIMITS. Dick’s story concerns a real estate investor named Ed Fletcher who accidentally discovers a clandestine group capable of pausing and altering reality, then restarting it, and sending the lives of certain people in different directions. Readers follow Fletcher for about twelve hours in one day. Nolfi’s film follows a New York Congressman named David Norris (Damon) for nearly four years before, during and after an encounter similar to Fletcher’s. As previously discussed we could expect the film to attach a boy meets girl situation to help fill out the extra time the audience will spend with Norris. What is unexpected is that THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU contains the most satisfying science fiction love story since at least THE ABYSS, possibly since Cronenberg remade THE FLY.

We first meet Norris as an incumbent running for reelection. On the eve of the election, Norris briefly meets Elise (Blunt), a party-crashing dancer who encourages and inspires him before rushing away. Norris spends the next few years pondering his next political move, and regretting not getting Elise’s last name, while the Adjustment Bureau conspires to keep them from ever meeting again. The challenge to Norris is that a network of unknown size and resources appears whenever he comes close to finding Elise. The challenge to the Bureau is that Norris and Elise have reached and shaken each other during their chance encounter far more deeply that the smitten horniness that suffices in most big studio thrillers.

The Bureau operates under a check and balance system that prevents them from controlling our lives completely, leaving not only the opportunity for coincidence, but the possibility of fate. A great strength of THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU in my estimation, and a great flaw in the opinion of many, is that it raises more questions than it answers. How one feels about destiny versus free will, whether one prefers the search that comes from doubt or the comfort of blind faith, and if one has ever wrestled with squaring the existence of a higher power with the fact that horrible events befall innocent people; these are among the moral and philosophical dilemmas confronted by the Bureau should they fail to keep Norris and Elise apart.

First time director George Nolfi manages to expand Dick’s conundrum into a cosmic puzzle without turning preachy, never losing sight of the fact that the audience came to root for Norris and Elise, not to sit on a beach and play chess against one of the Bureau’s hat sporting agents. An accomplished screenwriter for most of the last decade, Nolfi resists the writer-director’s trap of explaining everything through dialogue. I’m sure I will spot more hidden photographic gems on future viewings but for now I am impressed by a scene where Norris first meets Bureau honcho Thompson (Stamp). The camera is medium close on Damon, with Stamp appearing to materialize out of the vapor, a moment created with no more elaborate a special effect than a slow refocus. This image tells us something mysterious about the Bureau in general and Thompson in particular that is far more haunting than if it were attempted with a monologue.

Nolfi does a fine job of creating a dimensional playing field with the New York of a public figure, either by random chance of Norris’s eluding the Bureau, or the calculated appearance schedule of a political candidate. We follow Norris through locations intimate enough to be recognized by a local constituent like his after work pub, the Hilltop Hanover farm, the Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and a meatpacking district nightclub where strangers slap him on the back and gush “I voted for you!” We also follow him to Yankee Stadium, Liberty Island, and a rooftop in the East 40’s with an exquisite view of Central Park. These locations, some vaguely familiar others immediately recognizable to movie fans all over the world even if they’ve never been to New York, assume a greater meaning akin to the larger world of Berlin in WINGS OF DESIRE.

For the past generation or two Hollywood has been the prime suspect in both the dumbing down and the spiritual vacancy of America. I have disputed this at every opportunity, armed with a list of movie titles many people have never heard of, and most did not buy a ticket to see. THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU was produced by one of the biggest film and television companies in the world, NBC/Universal, and features both veteran and emerging actors supporting one of the top grossing movie stars alive. It will be interesting to see if this film will be embraced by those searching for something new and unique from Hollywood as was THE FLY, or if it will suffer the fate of THE ABYSS and once again confirm that studios must pander to the least introspective or imaginative among us to keep the red ink off their balance sheets.

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BEST WORST MOVIE (2009)

Posted in MOVIES TO LOOK FORWARD TO: Coming Soon or Now Playing In A Theater Near You... on August 14th, 2010 by Jim Delaney


Friday August 6, 2010 at the Landmark Kendall Sq, Cambridge MA

Written & Directed by Michael Stephenson, starring George Hardy, Claudio Fragasso, Connie Young and Margo Prey.

In 1999 there was no such thing the classic TV series “Galaxy Quest;” the show was invented so that the endearingly hilarious film GALAXY QUEST could exist. Had TROLL 2 not existed, it would have been worth inventing, if only to supply the back-story to BEST WORST MOVIE. TROLL 2 is a goofy fun horror film shot in Utah in 1989 but not released until 1992. The documentary BEST WORST MOVIE examines the making of, vanishing of, and unexpected resurgence of TROLL 2. The film’s voyage to cult status began when HBO aired it in 1993. Possibly the most slowly contagious viral video ever, TROLL 2 spent the next 10+ years growing a following of fans that held parties to screen it on worn VHS copies.

Word of these parties reached Michael Stephenson, who as a child appeared in TROLL 2 as Joshua Waits. Stephenson’s curiosity became two-fold: 1) who were these people who had embraced a movie that was regarded as preferably forgotten even by some of it’s cast and 2) what had become of that cast? BEST WORST MOVIE is Stephenson’s document of his exploration of both these questions. His very fortunate first move was to enlist George Hardy, who had played his father Michael Waits, to help him track down the rest of the TROLL 2 cast. George Hardy is a man too friendly, too funny, too decent, too all-around positive for fiction. If BEST WORST MOVIE were a fictitious lampoon of cult status like GALAXY QUEST, some development exec dork in a suit would have insisted Mr. Hardy be a secret alcoholic with a terrible mystery in his past to give him some lazy version of “depth.” But this is real life, and in real life and in BEST WORST MOVIE, even George Hardy’s ex-wife has only good things to say about him. The great joy of BEST WORST MOVIE is watching the semi father and son team of Stephenson and Hardy retrace their family tree. What I have given you here is prologue, plus a hint of who the principle characters are now — I am reluctant to say any more, other than that their journey is funny, sad and always intriguing. It is a trip worth taking for anyone who has ever opposed a chorus of disapproval to champion a movie, actor, singer, song, painter, building or any other artist or work of art.

With the exception of TROLL 2’s director Claudio Fragasso, everyone in Stephenson’s cast and crew family seems astounded by the recent success of TROLL 2. I read one review of BEST WORST MOVIE that made the interesting point that some ironic hipster audiences these days find it easier to laugh at a movie than to truly love it. I agree that this may account for some of the adoration Stephenson and Hardy experience in midnight TROLL 2 screenings across the country, but I think there is something else. TROLL 2 comes from an absurd premise, as does John Carl Buechler’s 1986 film TROLL, but it is a wildly inventive completely off the wall premise. When you watch either of these films, you may not like them, but you sure as hell won’t find yourself saying “I’ve already seen this in That Movie,” or “This is such a rip-off of Fill In The Blank!” No friends, the TROLL films are an unmistakably distinct experience. I submit that this is what GOBLIN-shirt wearing fans line up for; they’d rather see a low budget ridiculously inventive green-goop splatter-fest than a bloated big studio action movie without a prayer for something unique because it was made by the same committee formula as every other “summer tent-pole event” movie.

It could also be suggested that BEST WORST MOVIE benefits heavily from the slowly creeping growth of the ranks of TROLL 2 fans. Some more recent cult films like THE BIG LEBOWSKI and DONNIE DARKO found their core audience so quickly after their under-performing initial theatrical release that there was no time to sit back and take stock of what was reeling in these die-hard fans. As unusual as was the story of TROLL 2, so too is the singular experience at the heart of BEST WORST MOVIE, of this cast and their nearly generational transition with their fans. At the end of this year, I expect there will be no $100M high-octane movie hero whose quest I will have enjoyed rooting for as much as I did Mark and George’s.

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VALHALLA RISING (2009)

Posted in MOVIES TO LOOK FORWARD TO: Coming Soon or Now Playing In A Theater Near You... on August 9th, 2010 by Jim Delaney


Friday, July 30, 2009 at The Brattle Theater, Cambridge MA

Written & Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn, starring Mads Mikkelson and Maarten Stevenson.

I love it when a movie completely subverts my expectations and still gets me to go along for the ride. Considering Refn’s contemporary films, his urgent PUSHER trilogy and last year’s kinetic BRONSON, I expected VALHALLA RISING to be an explosively violent medieval epic. Bludgeonings, beheadings and the most nonchalantly delivered evisceration I’ve ever witnessed are all on the menu — albeit in very controlled portions. In between the skull crushings are stretches of physical and spiritual quest that have been broken up into six chapters: Wrath, Silent Warrior, Men Of God, and … I’ll spare you the spoiler of revealing more of the chapter titles. Suffice it to say that if you are unfamiliar with Refn’s character driven films, and stumble in expecting THE 13th WARRIOR or CLASH OF THE TITANS, you will be disappointed.

VALHALLA RISING follows a one-eyed savage fighter whom we first meet being dragged in chains across windswept barrens. The fighter is mute, but capable of fleeting glimpses of his near future; we never learn whether his silence is by choice or inability to speak. His keepers bet on his skill with annihilating the champion in each village they pass through. The fighter eventually slips his bonds and slays his keepers, sparing only a young boy named Are who had given him food and water during his long march. Are repays the favor by christening the fighter, imaginatively enough, One-Eye.

One-Eye and Are soon find themselves in the company of Christian Vikings intent on a crusade to Jerusalem. The Vikings have conflicting reasons for their crusade, but One-Eye’s second sight suggests that he belongs on this quest. When the Vikings’ ship becomes lost at sea, they wonder if they are headed for Hell rather than The Holy Land, and whether Are or One-Eye is the cause of their misfortune.

VALHALLA RISING, both in style and substance, questions the nature of spiritual awakening. Rejecting the operatic scores of Hollywood medieval epics, Refn uses a creeping and droning symphony of dread, broken more often by unnerving silence than screaming combat. We are not following heroes; this expedition is as lost spiritually as it is geographically. Each of the Vikings falls short of their mission, some seeking personal glory and others fortune. None are on this crusade for personal salvation or the glory of God, begging whether it is One Eye who has led them to Hell or these false prophets who have created their own damnation. VALHALLA RISING underscores the damage that weak men do to the faith of innocents, and the strength of courageous men to transcend the manipulations of cowards.

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THE SQUARE (2008)

Posted in MOVIES TO LOOK FORWARD TO: Coming Soon or Now Playing In A Theater Near You... on May 6th, 2010 by Jim Delaney


Tuesday, April 20 at the Kendall Sq. Cinema, Cambridge, MA.

Directed by Nash Edgerton, starring David Roberts, Claire van der Boom, Anthony Hayes and Joel Edgerton.

If you put a gun to my head and gave me three seconds to tell you what my favorite film genre is, I’d probably say Film Noir. I was raised on some glorious science fiction and horror movies. I’ve given many hours to my affection for westerns and war movies. I’ve even developed an appreciation for a precious few romances and romantic comedies. But film noir, via THE MALTESE FALCON, was the genre that first bonded me with my father. This latest tale of the boulevard of broken dreams comes to us from Syndey, Australia.

The Edgerton Bros story concerns two staples of classic noir: an affair between married partners and a bag of money. Raymond and Carla are both married to other people, and both dream of running away with each other. When Carla spies her husband Greg hiding a small fortune in a duffel, she does not waste any time figuring out where or how he got it, she only sees an opportunity to put hers and Raymond’s dream into action. An effort to cover the adulterers’ tracks so they can blow town with Greg’s cash results in an accidental murder. The murder hatches scams on top of schemes, threats on top of blackmail, and creeping suspicion among the residents of a suburban lakeside community.

Many a noir has been knocked from the classic shelf by characters making completely ridiculous decisions for the sole purpose of pushing the story in a direction it did not want to go. THE SQUARE is all the more compelling because George and Carla, and everyone in their web, avoid those decisions. While your idea of a perfect murder may not include their plan, it is important to remember that murder was never part of their plan, it was an unintended consequence. From there, every move they make is reasonable within the context of desperate people running scared. You don’t notice the great feeling of buying a story hook-line-sinker as much as you’d notice the jarring shake of a movie that jolts you back to reality with an unbelievable twist. The Edgerton’s exemplary cast hits every paranoid note in the their air-tight script.

THE SQUARE has another feature that sets it above the vast majority of suspense thrillers, an element lacking in most movies of any genre, which is the possibility of chance. Suspense is destroyed in lesser movies once you realize that everything happens by someone’s design. Everything. One character or another is always in control. As soon as you know what each character wants, you can guess what will happen next, and the rest of the movie becomes a clock winding down to what you knew would happen from 10 minutes in. THE SQUARE makes use of my personal favorite device for throwing a monkey in this wrench: weather.

Rain is the uncontrollable element that drives THE SQUARE into directions no character could have taken it. Rain is a 100% believable wild card because everyone in the audience can relate to having it ruin their best-laid plans. If it sounds like I am making too much of this, go back and watch BODY HEAT and imagine it without the sweltering humid heat wave. Kenneth Branagh and Clint Eastwood are masters of deploying weather in their films. Other random occurrences push Raymond and Carla together, and pull them apart, but rain is so pervasive that nature itself almost becomes a character. If THE SQUARE is any evidence, Noir remains alive and well to bond future generations of movie nerds.

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