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Bad Education: Keeping up appearances

To understand what kind of a film “Bad Education” seeks to be, it’s important to first be introduced to the values of the world director Cory Finley and screenwriter Mike Makowsky bring audiences into.

Set in an affluent Long Island community, Roslyn School District Superintendent Frank Tassone aims to make his district number one in America (they’re number four) and the school board president begins his meeting updates by tallying up how many Roslyn students have been admitted to elite universities.

“The better the school system, the higher the price tag on the homes,” one grateful community member (and real estate agent) brags to Tassone in the film’s opening moments.

Money and status are the keys to power in this world, and Finley and Makowsky find their way to communicating elitism to a broad audience with a dark, subtle humor and smart writing.

Based on a true story, the film follows Roslyn’s school system as it navigates a financial scandal that could destroy not only the school’s finances, but the reputations of its seemingly perfect staff.

“Bad Education” gives Hugh Jackman the opportunity to show off the biggest part of his on-screen persona – the relentless charm of a showman – in a way that other actors might turn into a snake-oil salesman, but that the Australian actor turns into a revealing, nuanced look into the effects of the public education system on those who work to help kids excel.

The allure of casting Jackman as Tassone preys on the film’s audience by luring them into a false sense of security with the performer that masks his character’s true intentions. There’s a sense of naturally rooting for Jackman that extends over to Tassone as audiences watch everyone in the world of the film faun over Tassone and place him on a pedestal.

Viewers who come into “Bad Education” without any history with the true story may be confused as to how things turned sideways for Roslyn. One Jackman smile and it all makes sense.

Even in moments where Tassone is forced to verbally confront others, Jackman’s measured approach comes across as genuine to the other characters in the scene and slightly underhanded to knowing viewers. It’s a deep, engaging performance that may well be one of the best in Jackman’s career.

While all eyes are rightfully on Jackman’s performance throughout, there’s an easy case to be made that Emmy and Oscar-winning actress Allison Janney’s scene-stealing turn as assistant superintendent Pam Gluckin deserved a full two-hour spotlight. Janney excels in roles that allow her to elongate naturally dry, sarcastic humor and her performance as Gluckin is a masterclass in facial expressions to convey contempt.

Ray Romano plays a convincingly dopey school board president, while “Blockers” star Geraldine Viswanathan showcases her potential to be a breakout star with another stellar performance as Rachel, a skeptical Roslyn journalism student encouraged by Tassone to dig deeper into her stories.

On the surface, “Bad Education” is a straightforward, simply shot and plainly directed film. But underneath the cosmetics are layers of subtle, nuanced critiques of elite East Coast ideologies and societal pressures to succeed at any cost.

Smartly, many of these themes are laid out in reverse where the audience sees the end results of actions before understanding what is happening in context and the cinematic subterfuge only truly reveals itself after the credits roll or on a subsequent viewing, where minor characters who didn’t seem important at first glance make sense in the aftermath.

If there’s a major flaw within “Bad Education,” it’s the journalistic strings that the film doesn’t tug on as events reveal themselves. Rachel’s investigation into the school’s finances stops dead in its tracks for large segments of the film despite being some of the most compelling from a plot perspective and a deeper look at Roslyn in the vein of the New York Magazine article by Robert Kolker this film was based on would make for a worthy, entertaining companion piece.

After debuting at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, “Bad Education” was quickly purchased by HBO’s film division, which released Finley’s feature on the premium cable channel Saturday evening. It’s sure to be a major player at the Golden Globes and Emmys with acting nods for Jackman and Janney a certainty and “Bad Education” a contender for best miniseries or television film.

With a dynamic lead performance from Jackman and a terrific ensemble cast, “Bad Education” offers up a revealing, subtle glimpse inside the world of public school education on a country club budget and is well worth seeking out on HBO.

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Blow The Man Down: The secrets women will keep

Grizzled fishermen singing old sea shanties is an unexpected, yet perfect way to set the mood for a fresh independent dark comedic noir mystery film from Amazon Studios.

A feature debut for the writing/directing team of Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy, “Blow The Man Down” is a striking, exceptionally crafted work of art that pulls in some of the best elements of “Fargo,” Agatha Christie novels and “Gilmore Girls” to create a unique take on the genre.

Set in a remote fishing town in Maine, “Blow The Man Down” follows sisters Priscilla and Mary Beth Connolly in the days following their mother’s funeral as a confrontation with a strange man leads the women down a path of murder and intrigue that entwines their close-knit community.

Newcomer Sophie Lowe brings a quiet, introspective presence to Priscilla – commonly known as Pris – and audiences can feel the wheels constantly churning in her head despite a lack of reaction by all outward appearances. There’s a sadness at the front of her performance that leaves Pris numb to the world around her that occasionally comes across as cold and callous, but Lowe softens the edges enough to ensure that this never feels to the point of being calculating.

“Homeland” star Morgan Saylor floats across the screen with reckless abandon, playing on Mary Beth’s impulsive nature to deliver a performance that draws viewers in without ever letting them get on Mary Beth’s side.

Lowe and Saylor have remarkable chemistry as sisters who double as identical opposites. Their reactions, although in contradiction with one another are perfectly in character and feel at times as if the same person is having two different reactions to one event. Mary Beth’s frantic emotions coalesce with Pris’s controlled demeanor to balance the sisters out as a rational unit.

Lowe plays off Saylor’s impulsiveness with a muted reaction that crystalizes her Priscilla as a cinematic inverse of Mary Beth, the same, but opposite person. Even at the times when it seems the two flip roles, Saylor turns down Mary Beth’s irrational nature as Lowe escalates Priscilla’s desperation to maintain this sense of balance.

With a brisk pace and laundry list of characters that populate Easter Cove, “Blow The Man Down” leaves audiences constantly yearning for more from the film’s terrific ensemble cast, which includes Academy Award nominee June Squibb and three-time Emmy Award winner Margo Martindale.

Martindale casts an especially large shadow over the mystery of the film as a ruthless bed-and-breakfast owner who expertly utilizes both charm and intimidation to get her way. In a screenplay that infers much more than it explains outright, Martindale perfectly uses her screen presence and inflection to make Mrs. Devlin authentically respected and feared.

Facial expressions play a key role in helping audiences navigate their way through the narrative web and Martindale is always able to maintain the proper tone with a subtle glance or twist of her mouth. There simply isn’t enough of Martindale in “Blow The Man Down,” which could easily have been turned into an eight-episode HBO miniseries.

Cole and Krudy are meticulous in the details of their world building, from costuming and production design to authentic casting and dialogue that gives viewers a true sense of place. Even though mystery is a primary element of the film, “Blow The Man Down” reveals its secrets as a part of world building rather than simply laying out the elements of the suspense in connect the dots fashion.

Camerawork presses in tightly on its leads to accentuate the tension and claustrophobia Pris and Mary Beth feel as their small world further closes in on them.

While the editing might feel unnecessarily jumpy at first glance, Cole and Krudy ping-pong back and forth between various camera angles within the same scene to capture specific images, disorient the viewer to heighten their attention or build suspense. Each element of the film from the script to the cast to the production team has a kinetic, frantic energy that provides a unique overall tone and visual style for the feature.

Composers Jordan Dykstra and Brian McOmber provide a mesmerizing soundtrack that heightens all the emotions that buzz around key moments in the film. Their exceptional use of strings jumps off the screen within the first 20 minutes and leaves audiences paralyzed with its ominous reverberations any time their score seeps its way back into the film.

If the tension provided in the soundtrack begins to suffocate audiences, revisiting the singing fishermen several times over the course of the 90-minute feature becomes a soothing reprieve from a makeshift Greek chorus.

The film debuted almost a year ago at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, where it was acquired for distribution by Amazon. After screening at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, “Blow The Man Down” skipped a theatrical release and was added to Amazon Prime in mid-March.

Tightly wrapped into a 90-minute frame, “Blow The Man Down” offers plenty of tense drama, dry humor and noir uncertainty to keep audiences entranced in the world Cole and Krudy create in their small Maine fishing town. Easily accessible at home on Amazon’s streaming platform, “Blow The Man Down” is easily one of the best and most unique films to be released so far in 2020 and well worth investing in for part of an afternoon or evening.

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Jump Shot: More than a simple act

At uncertain times like these, inspirational films can be a salve and reprieve from the outside world and a reminder of wholesome goodness.

Sports movies in particular are a frequent source for these moments of positivity, with themes of underdogs overcoming the odds or unlikely teammates rallying together for a common cause.

A new documentary – which won the prestigious Audience Award at the 2019 Hill Country Film Festival – is a sports film of a forgotten basketball hero who happened to be so much more than just the game he played or the move he invented.

Texas filmmaker Jacob Hamilton follows former University of Wyoming star Kenny Sailors over the span of more than seven decades from his beginnings as a three-time collegiate All-American and national champion as well as his professional career over six seasons.

Through archival footage and interviews with Sailors himself, Hamilton is able to explore the history of basketball until a single decision by one player changed the game permanently.

Then a game primarily played almost entirely on the ground, Sailors revolutionized the sport by being the first major college athlete to leap before shooting the basketball, providing a height advantage over defenders on the ground which rendered his shot nearly unblockable.

“Jump Shot” showcases highlights from the 1940s with Sailors dribbling around the court like a member of the Harlem Globetrotters, stopping on a dime and then rising up for a shot sports fans see in every modern game.

Hamilton and his archival team do a fantastic job of not only finding the footage with help from the University of Wyoming but presenting it in a myriad of ways that elevate the material and are visually stimulating.

One sequence in the middle of the film compares Sailors’ shooting form to that of all-time greats like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Stephen Curry, one of the film’s executive producers. Within a single frame, Sailors is rightly placed in the middle of the best shooters in basketball history with each man frozen at the top of their shot, visually confirming Sailors as a pioneer of the game.

Hamilton smartly also uses this archival footage as an interview tool, handing iPads with Sailors’ highlights to a wide variety of basketball legends including Dirk Nowitzki, Hall of Fame coach Bob Knight, Kevin Durant, Nancy Lieberman and Curry.

In a sense, “Jump Shot” could be viewed as a cinematic resume for Sailors to be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, an accolade members of the University of Wyoming’s athletic department submit Sailors for during the documentary.

Sailors likely wouldn’t have sat for as many interviews as he did – appearing in the majority of the film over age 90 – if all Hamilton was interested in was basketball.

Notoriously humble, Sailors’ humanity and relationships with others shine through like a beam of light over the course of the 80-minute film as Hamilton reveals his courtship and marriage to Marilynne, which in part due to her health, led Sailors away from the game to the Alaskan wilderness.

From his military service to his dedication to family and those he taught, Sailors is rightly portrayed as an American hero worthy of the spotlight the film places upon him. His vibrant personality radiates off the screen so warmly that it’s impossible not to be charmed more by the man, not the legend of a sports revolution.

“Jump Shot: The Kenny Sailors Story” debuted last year at the South by Southwest Film Festival and spent the majority of 2019 touring at festivals across the country. It was slated for a theatrical release earlier this month until the spread of the novel coronavirus shut down movie theaters across the country.

Since then, the film’s producers have leapt on the growing trend of releasing their film digitally in lieu of waiting for theaters to reopen.

This worthy, inspirational documentary will be premiering for the public with a special three-day event release Thursday through Saturday, April 16-18. Audiences will be able to watch the film in the privacy of their own homes by purchasing a $7.99 digital ticket for a 48-hour viewing window at http://www.jumpshotmovie.com.

A portion of proceeds from this event will benefit the Convoy of Hope for COVID-19 meals in affected communities.

More than just a simple sports documentary, “Jump Shot: The Kenny Sailors Story” is a revealing, heartwarming look at a man who lived fully and unapologetically for others and it’s a film well worth seeking out during its limited digital release this weekend.

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Onward: Movie watching heading ‘homeward’

One month ago, the latest film from Disney’s Pixar Studios opened in over 4,300 theaters nationwide and grossed more than $39 million in its opening weekend.

With the hopefully short-term decimation of the movie theater experience thanks to the novel coronavirus, “Onward” has gone from the biggest box office hit of March to just one of countless new films available on a streaming service in April.

The movie was one of the first major studio releases still in theaters to be available on demand for $19.99 – alongside early 2020 hits like “The Invisible Man” and “Birds of Prey” – but “Onward” has the further distinction of being the only one to move two weeks later to a streaming service, in this case, Disney+.

The latest Pixar feature follows a pair of teenage elven brothers, Ian and Barley, who go on a magical quest to spend one more day with their father, who died when they were too young to remember him.

“Onward” has an interesting hook for this seemingly simple tale, placing the narrative in a world where traditional mythical creatures like dragons, fairies and elves have traded in their magical heritage for the ease of modern living.

The success of the film requires a voice actor with the ability to make Ian a relatable, sympathetic lead character that audiences can relate to and the choice of Tom Holland strikes this tone from the outset. With Marvel’s “Spider-Man” and “Avengers” films, Holland has proven to be well adept at creating genuine earnest characters that can also carry the emotional stakes of the film.

Chris Pratt is perfectly cast as the voice of Ian’s eccentric, magical quest obsessed brother Barley, giving the character an equal infusion of Jack Black-esque enthusiasm and “Lord of the Rings” style fandom.

Relentless energy is a tricky thing to balance in a vocal performance, though Pratt finds the right balance between boundless intensity of spirit and annoyance that doesn’t overwhelm Barley as a character and sets up some genuine emotional moments in the second half of the film.

Holland and Pratt have a well-balanced chemistry that allows the primary themes of family and brotherhood to shine through despite some rocky moments in the screenplay.

“Onward” translates well from the big screen to the home viewing experience with a 4K quality transfer onto the Disney+ platform. Characters have more texture and depth visually that creates a three-dimensional look on a two-dimensional viewing format.

This works especially well during the film’s cinematic action sequences where “Onward” plays up its mythical origins with magic and mystical creatures that provide for engaging, entertaining moments.

Absent from the move to the streaming platform is the animated short film “Playdate with Destiny,” a lighthearted, family-friendly tale that marks the first crossover between Pixar and one of Disney’s recently acquired Fox properties, “The Simpsons.” While not currently on the Disney+ platform, this short following baby Maggie Simpson should be on the service eventually and is worth checking out.

The coronavirus has impacted every film studio in remarkable ways, none likely more so than Disney, a studio whose tentpole features prop up the theatrical release calendar for the entire film industry and help keep smaller theaters alive with massive family-friendly and superhero films.

A seismic shift in Disney’s 2020 slate of films has drastically impacted their theatrical model with “Onward” hitting Disney+ likely six months before it would have and anticipated hits like a live-action remake of “Mulan” and the Marvel prequel “Black Widow” delayed by half a year.

Disney spent $125 million on director Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of the popular “Artemis Fowl” children’s novels, a film slated to be released next month and now pulled from theaters entirely for an exclusive, upcoming run on Disney+.

How things play out for avid moviegoers over the next several months is unclear, but hopefully the promise of early hits like “Onward” finding new life on streaming services will stem the tide until social distancing is a thing of the past.

Until then, “Onward” is a worthwhile family-friendly feature to fill the void and something worth checking out on Disney’s exclusive streaming platform.

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Uncorked: Fathers and sons

Over the last several years, major film directors have made their way to the small screen, making limited series in search of creative freedom and risk-taking with the help of content hungry streaming services.

Slowly but surely, this trend is starting to pay dividends for movie lovers as young, talented television writers and creators are making their way to feature films.

Prentice Penny, show runner and one of the executive producers of the hit HBO series “Insecure,” partnered with Netflix for his directorial debut “Uncorked,” which debuted on the platform last weekend.

“Uncorked” follows a young African American man in Memphis looking to break into a world dominated by white men as he seeks to become a master sommelier, an elite accreditation for wine professionals. Elijah struggles to balance his love of wine with familial obligations, mostly put upon him by his father who runs the family’s popular barbecue stand.

Mamoudou Athie gives a solid, unspectacular performance as Elijah, offering the character the cool civility and demeanor required of a master sommelier candidate but with enough personality to carry scenes in the barbecue stand and at home.

Emmy winner Courtney B. Vance is the ideal choice to play Elijah’s father Louis as the “American Crime Story” star provides immense gravitas and credibility to the project with his understated performance that belies the tremendous amount of work he’s doing with a limited part.

Vance wears the burden of family legacy well in the role as Louis presses Elijah with a stoic, yet heavy hand and the transformation of his character over the course of the film feels genuine and earned.

Veteran comedienne Niecy Nash steals every scene she’s in with her most compelling work to date as Elijah’s mother Sylvia, a cancer survivor trying to bridge the gap between father and son while stoking Elijah’s passion for wine. Her performance has the traditional humorous line deliveries viewers are accustomed to from Nash, but there’s also a refreshing tenderness to her work that helps Sylvia resonate with audiences in a way they can’t get to with Elijah or Louis.

Penny takes liberties with his screenplay to paint a larger picture with broad brushstrokes, often leaving audiences to fill in the blanks as time fluidly progresses at various rates over the course of the film.

For example, the development of Elijah’s relationship with Tanya floats in the background of his larger struggle between wine and barbecue. Landmark moments in their romance are shown – their flirtatious meeting discussing wine as rap artists, a first date at a roller rink, meeting his parents – but their love remains shallow and out of focus.

Penny trusts his audience to fill in the gaps, leaving aspects intentionally unwritten to keep focus on the worlds of wine and barbecue, passion and family, pulling Elijah in different directions.

It’s a bold strategy that doesn’t entirely pay off for viewers, who will occasionally have trouble orienting themselves after unannounced leaps in time.

Visually, “Uncorked” has a smoky, seductive hue that draws audiences in and cinematographer Elliot Davis elevates the film with an engaging energy that pairs well with the rhythmic hip-hop soundtrack transitioning in and out of dialogue scenes.

“Uncorked” was slated to debut earlier this month at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, a premiere cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic that would have provided a much-needed word of mouth boost as it headed toward its release on Netflix this past Friday.

An imperfect film in many ways, “Uncorked” does provide a welcome respite from current events and a promising feature debut from a filmmaker to watch in the future.

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The Banker: Timing is everything

If “The Banker” had come out when it was supposed to, director George Nolfi’s film would have been the talk of the town.

A spiritual successor to the Academy Award winning “Green Book,” it was a film with a lot going for it: a pair of talented African American actors including Oscar nominee Samuel L. Jackson, a well-crafted screenplay based on true events and a brand new studio in tech giant Apple looking to make a splash on the big screen.

The film was set to debut at festivals and theaters during the heart of awards season last November before heading to the recently launched AppleTV+ streaming service, but was pulled at the last minute after sexual abuse allegations against the son of one of the subjects of the film – Bernard Garrett, Jr. – who also happened to be among the film’s producers.

With audiences staying home to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, “The Banker” has since limped into theaters earlier this month and began streaming on Apple Friday to little fanfare.

Viewers by and large aren’t aware of the fact that one of 2020’s best films – on the big screen two weeks ago – can be seen in the privacy of their homes today on a free trial or $4.99 monthly subscription to the new service, much more cost-efficient than the $19.99 price tag studios have place on digital rentals of similarly shuttered films like “The Invisible Man” or “The Hunt.”

“The Banker” tells the story of two of the first African American bankers in the United States – Bernard Garrett and Joe Morris – who first become significant Los Angeles real estate owners before purchasing a small Texas bank. Unable to purchase the property on their own due to the political and cultural climate of the 1960s, Bernard and Joe hire a white man, Matt Steiner, to front their investments.

The film’s success lies largely with the dynamic chemistry between its principal cast, with Anthony Mackie giving some of the best work of his career since 2008’s “The Hurt Locker” as financial whiz Bernard. His calm, almost stoic demeanor provides the necessary gravitas to give audiences faith in his sense of purpose and the way Mackie shows just enough of Bernard’s inner anger reflects the drive within the character.

It’s in perfect balance with Jackson’s free-flowing, charismatic turn as Joe, a verbose, wily businessman who’s just as eager to make a profit but follows his gut more than his brain and isn’t afraid to speak his mind.

On the page, the characters of Bernard and Joe are rather simplistic cutouts of real people with little complexity aside from their drive to succeed and their apprehension about racial inequalities in business. But what makes “The Banker” a worth-while watch is how Mackie and Jackson are able to elevate the material with their on-screen chemistry, which feels natural and genuine. Their characters’ different approaches to problems at hand makes for simple, yet effective storytelling and provides for many of the film’s most entertaining moments.

It’s especially effective in the movie’s engaging first hour, where Bernard and Joe begin working together and bring a willing, yet clueless Matt on board as the face of their partnership. Hoult is adept at playing Matt as naïve rather than the fool and it helps make scenes where Joe teaches him golf or Bernard explaining complex algebra feel fun and not demeaning.

Nolfi’s film often struggles to make clear the financial transactions involved, whipping audiences through technically heavy jargon like “capitalization rates,” but there’s a lot of flash and pizzazz to the montage style in which Nolfi wraps and compartmentalizes this information for viewers.

“The Banker” moves along crisply and the direction isn’t particularly noticeable aside from the occasional montage, but Nolfi and his team of screenwriters – five are credited here – could have easily trimmed the film by 10-15 minutes without losing much and maintained the momentum of the first hour.

A potential awards season contender last year, there’s frankly no real chance for “The Banker” to be up for accolades given its middling release and the likelihood that enough films will still be released theatrically in 2020 to boot Apple’s debut feature from the shortlist of contenders.

The ease of access to AppleTV+, combined with strong work from Mackie and Jackson, make “The Banker” a welcome distraction in a world of uncertainty and something worth seeking out at home.

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Spenser Confidential: Last man standing

It started with unflappable British spy James Bond heading for the hills as “No Time To Die” moved from a mid-April release to late November.

Within the last week, film studios have been shelving their biggest upcoming releases with Disney’s “Mulan” postponed indefinitely and Universal’s ninth “Fast and the Furious” film pushed to 2021 amid growing concerns for public safety due to the coronavirus outbreak globally.

As ardent film fans stay away from their local movie theaters, one studio hopes to reel in all the attention with a full court press of new releases. Netflix, the streaming service now doubling as its own production house, will have released 17 new feature films in the first four months of 2020, compared to 18 major releases from the six other large studios combined.

For films still in theaters, box office numbers have sharply dropped relative to expectations across the board due to lower attendance with most films falling by 60% or more from the previous week.

One film that would have been affected by this economic downturn is Mark Wahlberg’s new crime dramedy “Spenser Confidential” from longtime collaborator and director Peter Berg, a middling, uneven flick that would be considered a massive bomb if it opened in theaters last weekend.

Luckily, it’s the number one most watched film on Netflix according to the streaming service as audiences stay home and give a movie they probably wouldn’t consider paying to see a shot.

Based on the 80s private-eye TV series “Spencer for Hire” and the novel “Wonderland” by Ace Atkins, “Spenser Confidential” follows Wahlberg as former Boston cop Spenser, fresh on the streets after serving a five-year prison sentence for assaulting a superior officer. When that officer and another detective are brutally murdered, Spenser cannot look away and privately investigates the crimes with the aid of his roommate, Hawk.

The title role is a perfect summary of what Wahlberg is best at as an actor: no-nonsense toughness with a dry wit and casual charm. There isn’t much to the role, nor Wahlberg’s performance for that matter, but the movie fits the actor’s strengths to a T and makes the overall movie-watching experience better than if the role were played by a younger, less confident actor.

His brash, standoffish demeanor puts him at odds from a chemistry perspective with Winston Duke, whose equally tough-guy persona as Hawk clashes with both actors essentially trying to be the alpha in the relationship. Duke, relatively unknown by comparison to Wahlberg despite memorable roles in “Black Panther” and “Us,” takes a backseat for the most partbut there is still an unease that never really cements into an engaging relationship.

This isn’t the case with Wahlberg and Alan Arkin, playing Spenser’s mentor Henry with ease and a brilliant sense of comic timing. Their chemistry is naturally and effortless, making for the most engaging, entertaining sections of otherwise listless action fodder.

Because so many viewers have a Netflix subscription for other reasons – binging television shows, access to classic movies, etc. – turning on “Spenser Confidential” feels like playing with house money. A byproduct of this is diminishing viewer expectations, a film watched on Netflix or Amazon or Hulu doesn’t have to be as remarkable, or in some cases, good at all. It just needs to be worth time because it feels free to watch.

In this context, “Spenser Confidential” is definitely a film checking out for movie-fans social distancing and self-quarantining due to coronavirus. It’s not great, nor a movie that needs to be seen on a big screen, but in this time of uncertainty, any casual distraction that can allow people to turn off their minds and relax is a welcome reprieve.

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The Way Back: Acting for revitalization

Famous celebrity, actor, and Oscar-winning writer/director Ben Affleck has spent the past several years confronting his personal demons both on and off screen.

His work in David Fincher’s 2014 mystery thriller “Gone Girl” was a treatise on the cult of celebrity status – and largely unbeknownst to Affleck during filming – an intentional bit of casting that put audiences at odds with his character in the film because of their personal disdain towards him.

While his recent work as Batman in the DC Comics Extended Universe provided Affleck an opportunity to cash in on his fame, it also has allowed him to pursue more introspective work including a somber turn in last year’s Netflix drama “Triple Frontier” and now with the sports drama “The Way Back.”

Reteaming with his “The Accountant” director Gavin O’Connor, “The Way Back” features perhaps Affleck’s most thoughtful, self-reflective performance to date as Jack Cunningham, a former high school basketball star turned alcoholic washout asked to become the head boys’ hoops coach at his alma mater.

That it comes on the heels of a well-documented personal battle for Affleck with alcoholism that led to multiple stints in rehabilitation, relapsing and a divorce from Jennifer Garner is not by accident either.

Every moment of “The Way Back” is considered and has an air of subtle authenticity speaking to Affleck’s own struggles. A title change from “The Has-Been” to “The Way Back” suggests this to be true; watching Affleck’s innate precision at showing the signs of substance abuse and hiding them from those around him is especially poignant.

The film’s highest points are in the lowest moments of Jack’s personal hell, stumbling out of his second home at the neighborhood dive bar, waking up hungover and drinking a can of light beer while in the shower, avoiding life as a whole.

It’s in these moments where the line between Jack Cunningham the character and Ben Affleck the performer are exceptionally blurred and viewers cannot possibly separate the two, which usually hinders the success of a film. For “The Way Back,” it’s the only way the film works.

O’Connor’s screenplay, written with Brad Ingelsby, never fully commits to Jack’s story of redemption in overcoming his alcoholism, fusing an intimate, personal journey with a rather bland, standard sports drama that believes itself to be “Hoosiers” but never has any element that elevates the story of a rag-tag group of losing basketball players becoming a team to the level of Affleck’s individual performance.

It’s often noticeable in Affleck’s work how uncomfortable he is coaching the players on the team, which feels both a part of the way he built the character of Jack and how much he’d rather be focusing on the half of “The Way Back” that has nothing to do with basketball.

This isn’t to say that the sports drama is entirely uncompelling. A veteran in the genre directing both 2004’s Olympic ice hockey feature “Miracle” and the exceptional 2011 mixed martial arts film “Warrior,” O’Connor does a terrific job of creating montages that engage viewers in the basketball action.

Basketball sections of the film do provide much needed lightness to an otherwise heavy drama and occasionally create opportunities for Affleck to show Jack’s growth as a person.

But “The Way Back” simply shouldn’t have this much PG-13 level sports in an R-rated character drama. A more composed script would have pushed the film – and especially Affleck’s performance – into Oscar-worthy status and could have made it the first truly great film of the new decade.

Affleck’s subdued, introspective turn is worth the price of admission to “The Way Back,” a film that hopefully showcases more great things to come from one of Hollywood’s most dynamic and passionate filmmakers.

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Portrait of a Lady on Fire: Subtlety in romance

Desire is all about delay.

The anticipation, the angst, the longing all cascading towards a moment of passion.

It’s a difficult trick to pull off in the world of cinema, but Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” builds from embers into a raging inferno of emotion in one of the best romance films in ten years.

The French filmmaker progresses from a trilogy of coming-of-age features into the world of adulthood with a pitch perfect examination of nuanced affection that turns to admiration that begets passionate lust with a daring contemporary feel to a period love story.

Set on an isolated island in Brittany in the end of the eighteenth century, Sciamma’s fourth feature follows Marianne, a young artist commissioned to paint a wedding portrait of a woman without her knowledge.

Key to the success of “Portrait” is the relationship between model and artist, an examination of the soul that Sciamma deciphers as much as a mirror of self-reflection as a keen eye peering into the world of another.

The film lives and dies on the performances of its two leads and Noémie Merlant brings an effortless earnestness to Marianne that pairs perfectly with Adéle Haenel’s quiet intensity as Héloïse. Each moment in the film feels genuinely considered, not by the actresses portraying the characters, but by Marianne and Héloïse themselves.

Dialogue in a script can provide the context for someone being unable to say what they feel, but the right amount of hesitation or inflection in a voice can be just as breathtaking. Merlant and Haenel are masterful at pulling at the seams of Sciamma’s screenplay and digging beneath the surface of the script in a richly intimate, physical way that smolders in intensity without the two ever touching.

Framed together in a single shot along the cliffs of Brittany, the pair challenge each other with inquisitive, stolen glances that flicker like embers off the screen. “Portrait” captures intimacy as it grows and changes better than any romance film in a decade and the collaboration between actresses and filmmaker shimmers as viewers fall in love with Héloïse, then Marianne, and then both of them together and apart.

Their dynamic chemistry is offset slightly by the presence of a third major character in an otherwise sparsely cast film.

Typically in a film like this, Luàna Bajrami’s Sophie would be a distracting interloper character that pulls audiences away from the primary romance. But Bajrami matches both leads in quiet intensity with a stoic, yet emotional turn that enriches the world of the film and accentuates the progression of Marianne and Héloïse’s relationship.

Sciamma expertly crafts art into the visual style of “Portrait,” building a world of undeniable cinematic moments that often feel like paintings stacked on top of one another to build a story.

So much of this artistry comes through in how the audience is introduced to Héloïse through Marianne’s lens as Sciamma takes viewers on an elaborate examination of Haenel, her hair, her earlobes, her piercing eyes. Every detail that Marianne paints into existence on canvas is masterfully imprinted into the hearts of engaged audience members with careful precision and expert cinematography from Claire Mathon.

The romance of the film comes not just from the brilliant chemistry Merlant and Haenel share on screen, but in the way it is portrayed through the camera lens with longing, lingering shots mixed with stolen glances that push the audience into the middle of a forbidden love affair.

The best French film in many years, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” was eligible for awards season acclaim, usually playing as a de facto runner up to eventual Oscar Best Picture winner “Parasite” in international feature categories. Astoundingly, the French film community chose not to submit “Portrait” for major Academy Award consideration, opting for the political crime drama “Les Misérables,” which recently took home the country’s top film prize.

Emotionally stirring and wonderfully subdued, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a daring and expressive film that dazzles in its simplicity and feels of the moment in spite of its period setting.

Sciamma’s film is a must for cinephiles willing to overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles and a thought-provoking drama that lingers long after the credits roll.

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The Last Thing He Wanted: Short term loss, long term value

With a seemingly endless budget, Netflix continues to pour money into project after project with avid disregard for the bottom line.

This strategy may seem counter-intuitive to budget conscious business owners, but for film lovers, the streaming service writing blank checks to everyone from Martin Scorsese to Noah Baumbach to Michael Bay is an overall win.

Some productions may miss the mark financially, but the expansive spending spree has given filmmakers a chance to produce more daring endeavors and creative risks that should make directors better at their craft.

Dee Rees – an African-American writer/director who broke out in 2017 with the Oscar nominated drama “Mudbound” – received a major push from the streaming service for her follow-up feature based on a Joan Didion novel of the same name, “The Last Thing He Wanted,” which premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival and dropped on Netflix last weekend.

Filled with major star power in Oscar winners Anne Hathaway and Ben Affleck and the promise of an emerging filmmaker, “The Last Thing” has the pizzazz and the cinematic bravado necessary for a taut political thriller, but the film falls flat from the outset with an unnecessarily confusing, lackluster screenplay.

Hathaway stars as an investigative journalist whose pursuit of the story overlaps with a guilt-propelled errand thrust upon her by her unstable father and pushes her into the middle of an international labyrinth of drugs and violence that could prove to be her undoing.

The former Academy Award-winning actress is an apt choice for audiences to follow around for the majority of the film’s two-hour run time, but Hathaway plays the character at such a cautious distance that it’s nearly impossible for viewers to get fully behind her performance enough to maintain interest in the haphazard political intrigue.

Her best moments come in the film’s opening third, which takes advantage of Hathaway’s emotional intensity both verbally and within her eyes. This manifests itself differently as her character investigates potential war crimes in Latin America versus personal crisis with her father as well as her daughter at boarding school.

Hathaway is well matched with veteran character actor Willem Dafoe, an alert and present performer willing to take risks as Hathaway’s estranged father slowly deteriorating mentally. Their scenes are dynamic and resonate with audiences long after Dafoe leaves the screen, a rarity in Rees’ film.

Although Dafoe does venture over into the realm of caricature at times, his performance still carries large segments of “The Last Thing” with a bright, engaging turn that breathes life into the sails of the narrative.

The weakest link in the film is Affleck’s stiff, dry turn as a political instigator from Washington with questionable motivations. If the description of the character feels vague, it’s likely because Affleck doesn’t bring much to the performance beyond a simple, almost clinical recitation of dialogue from Rees’ screenplay and it doesn’t hold up comparatively to his recent work in another Netflix original film, J.C. Chandor’s 2019 feature “Triple Frontier.”

As is to be expected with a high-budget political thriller, “The Last Thing” rounds out its considerable supporting cast with a cavalcade of moderately familiar faces that provide depth and richness to a world that far exceeds its middling story, including exceptional turns from Rosie Perez as Hathaway’s investigative partner and Edi Gathegi as a rival gun runner.

The adaptation of Didion’s novel is problematic and messy, from the lingering and verbose prose narration that gives context to the mental state of Hathaway’s character to the ping-pong storyline jumping to the muddling of a relatively straightforward narrative.

This feels more a fault of Rees as screenwriter – a credit she shares with Marco Villalobos – than as a director as her visual storytelling is sometimes engaging and always interesting with strong cinematography from Bobby Bukowski.

For a variety of reasons, “The Last Thing He Wanted” doesn’t really pull together as a compelling narrative but the shades of a taut political thriller can be seen in the shadows.

Ultimately, this makes Netflix’s spending to give Rees a chance to grow as a filmmaker worth their investment and “The Last Thing He Wanted” is a perfect movie for audiences interested in the genre to take a low-risk chance on.

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Birds Of Prey: Identity crisis

She’s just an ordinary girl who loves her breakfast sandwich.

Sure, she also loves money, the ability to do whatever she wants without recourse or retribution and her pet hyena, Bruce.

But Harley Quinn – at least as seen through the lens of Margot Robbie’s gobsmackingly fun portrayal – isn’t simply a bad guy. She’s misunderstood.

An inevitability following the breakout success of Robbie’s Quinn in 2016’s “Suicide Squad,” this year’s first comic book film takes her supporting character and places her right in the middle of the action with “Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn.”

Director Cathy Yan’s sophomore feature follows the classic Batman villainess immediately after her breakup with The Joker, which puts a target on her back from both cops and robbers alike. The quest for a diamond holding bank account numbers serves as a MacGuffin to keep the action going as audiences bounce around Gotham City with Quinn and the titular Birds of Prey.

As comic book movies go, “Birds of Prey” isn’t aiming to be weighty material and the below-par screenplay from writer Christina Hodson cripples major sections of the film’s narrative structure and cohesion.

But the driving force that makes Yan’s film successful is Robbie’s relentless energy and charm as Quinn, taking everything audiences loved about her quirky turn in “Suicide Squad” and ramping it up to 11 for a frantic, maniacal performance that pushes a middling story forward.

Robbie’s Quinn maintains a free-spirited attitude that is a breath of fresh air every time her slightly twisted smile, multicolored pigtails and overly dramatic eyes pop up on screen. The Australian actress pulls viewers in and gets them to root for an unlikely anti-hero with disarming comic timing and quick-witted flashes of sanity from Quinn’s previous life as a psychologist.

Other characters in “Birds of Prey” become more interesting not for what those actors are bringing to the film, but rather how Robbie is able to bounce off of them as audiences are endeared to whatever Quinn’s going to do next.

When “Birds of Prey” turns away from Robbie’s radiantly maniacal turn, Yan’s film begins to veer off the rails as viewers are shown the larger narrative from the perspective of new, thinly written characters that only work about half the time.

Character actress Rosie Perez makes the most of her meatiest role in years as marginalized detective Renee Montoya, taking Montoya’s one defining trait in the film – a hardheadedness developed from watching too much 1980s cop dramas – and making it work for the character as something that gets the intended laughs, but also provides a worthy foil for Robbie.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead – either by choice or by lack of character development – infuses her performance as the crossbow-wielding assassin Huntress with a monotone, almost vapid lack of personality that occasionally makes for a well-timed joke, but equally feels unnecessary and bland in comparison to the bright characters around her.

There’s a strange implied homoerotic bond between the film’s two primary male characters – both major villains – in Ewan McGregor’s Black Mask and Chris Messina’s Victor Zsasz that goes far enough to define both characters as sociopaths who share a romanticism for violence but not far enough that it does anything to make either character compelling or interesting.

What stands out most aside from Quinn is the brilliantly shot and designed fight choreography that puts the viewer in the middle of the action in a way that feels fresh and quintessentially part of the main character.

Each fight takes on a different life based on the setting while maintaining a free-flowing consistency that combines humor and authentically plausible action for a comic book film. Robbie and the stunt coordinators take great care to vary up Quinn’s move set from battle to battle based on the weapons she’s wielding and the fluid use of martial arts is on par with the “John Wick” films.

Films made from DC Comics have largely taken a backseat to the Marvel Cinematic Universe ever since the conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy of Batman films, but it seems that Warner Brothers has begun to figure out a successful format with brighter, lighter films like “Wonder Woman,” “Aquaman” and now “Birds of Prey.”

If the trend continues while the studio also backs more artistic, prestige-driven adaptations like the Oscar-nominated “Joker,” it’s possible that the DC universe of films could surpass Marvel in the next several years if Disney fails to connect with audiences in a post- “Avengers” world.

Although “Birds of Prey” suffers from an identity issue that can’t decide if Robbie’s Quinn can carry an entire film on her own, the fantabulous highs far outweigh the middling lows and make this comic book lark a film worth seeing amid a disappointing February slate at the box office

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The universal language of cinema: ‘Parasite’ breaks barriers as 92nd Academy Award winner for Best Picture

Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films. – Bong Joon-ho, Oscar-winning writer and director of “Parasite”

Before Sunday night, a lot of things were different in the world of cinema.

A foreign language film had never won Best Picture at the Academy Awards; no South Korean film had ever earned a nomination; Walt Disney was the only person in Oscar history to win four awards at the same ceremony, doing so in 1954.

Bong Joon-ho and the 92nd Academy Awards changed film history forever.

The South Korean writer/director’s seventh feature, “Parasite,” a haunting and arresting drama with elements of comedy and paranoia, took home the Academy Award for Best Picture this weekend with a dynamic, unflinching look at families at the top and bottom of South Korea’s social strata.

With wins for Best Direction, Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature, Bong joins Disney as a four-time Oscar winner on the same night and cements South Korean cinema on the map.

Now available widely for home viewing, there’s absolutely no reason to avoid seeing one of the best films of the 2010’s, especially as “Parasite” will likely dominate film conversation for months to come.

Missing out at this point puts audiences at risk of ruining the film as the less viewers know about the film before seeing “Parasite,” the better the cinematic experience will be.

In the simplest terms, “Parasite” is about two families, the affluent Park family living in a walled manor on a hill and the impoverished Kim family leeching off open Wi-Fi and free extermination in their semi-basement flat.

When the Kim’s son is hired to serve as an English tutor for the Park’s teenage daughter, it sets in motion a series of events that will irrevocably change both families for life.

Twists and turns masterfully crafted into the story are offset by moments of extremely poignant subtlety as Bong envelopes audiences in a world that seems infinitely close and yet constantly out of reach through perfect shot selection and camera movement that puts the viewers’ eyes on exactly what they need to see at the exact moment they need to see it.

Although set in Seoul, the universal film realistically could have taken place anywhere and in any language with its observations on economic class conflict, greed and deception. Its biggest hindrance to mainstream success has been a relative unwillingness for subtitled films, though Bong has crafted a theatrical experience that far transcends any language barrier.

“Parasite” is an arresting display of cinema mastery that reveals its many layers over repeat viewings and a feature whose humor, tension and drama interweave majestically over the terse two-hour running time.

Perspective is of key importance to “Parasite” as viewers are left questioning events in the film from every angle, not knowing what’s coming next or where it’s coming from. The Oscar-winning screenplay written by Bong and Han Jin-won is an unparalleled combination of tension and release that keeps audiences on the edge of their seats.

What’s most important about the unprecedented success of “Parasite” is what it means for the Academy moving forward, and hopefully, for the film industry as a whole.

It’s truly remarkable that a foreign-language film broke through and won in four out of the six categories it was nominated in. But at the same time, “Parasite” failed to receive a deserved cinematography nod and none of the film’s illustrious cast was honored with a nomination despite the film winning Best Ensemble at the Screen Actors Guild awards.

“Parasite” relies on eight actors to deliver memorable, pitch-perfect performances in order to pull off Bong’s layered screenplay and there isn’t a false step among the entire cast. Each member of the family – father, mother, son and daughter – is in sharp contrast from their mirror in the other family, as if they were playing the opposite side of the same coin.

This year’s Academy Award Best Picture winner is a truly special, audacious cinematic masterpiece that’s uniquely of this moment in time and yet transcends the world we’re living in.

“Parasite” was the best film of 2019, arguably the greatest film of the last decade and the correct choice by Academy voters Sunday evening.