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Da 5 Bloods: Battle scars never fully heal

Four men – aging Vietnam vets laden with the scars of their service – return to the land that forged them in search of their fallen commander’s grave and the gold bullion that lies with it.

For a filmmaker like Oliver Stone, this story would be a bombastic tale of frustration and anger boiling to the surface without much humanity under the surface.

Director Spike Lee, however, uses the narrative as a device to educate about the struggles of African American armed forces far from home during the civil rights movement and how racial identity and politics affected a generation of servicemen.

The film, “Da 5 Bloods,” finds Lee pulling from all the corners of his mind, grabbing subtle and overt cinematic homages to “Apocalypse Now” or the philosophical diatribes of Richard Linklater films and interspersing them with news footage that recontextualizes fictional events.

Though part of an ensemble piece in practice, Delroy Lindo shines above the rest with a career-best performance as Paul, whose grief and post-traumatic stress rip at him from the seams as he tries to maintain an outward strength and resolve through thinly veiled contempt that borders on outright hatred.

Lindo is able to masterfully fill Paul with an anguish that comes to define his soul and the choices that he makes, evoking shades of Colonel Kurtz with as perfectly conflicted a portrayal of PTSD that has been on screen in years. 

Following up on his incredible turn in the independent drama “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” Jonathan Majors delivers a brilliantly understated performance as Paul’s son, David, taking the forefront when needed to go toe-to-toe with a magnetic Lindo and almost fading into the background to allow the four surviving members of the unit to have their moments independent of the current timeline.

Broadway veteran Norm Lewis as well as “The Wire” stars Clarke Peters and Isiah Whitlock Jr. give the core cast a dynamic energy and team with Lindo to create an invaluable, genuine bond that feels authentic to those forged in combat.

Chadwick Boseman offers stern charisma in a small supporting turn as “Stormin’ Norman” during flashback sequences, commanding the screen with his presence in a way that evokes Malcolm X in his physicality and Martin Luther King, Jr. in his words.

Lee opts to have the four surviving Bloods be played by the same actor in multiple eras without the de-aging process that plagued last year’s “The Irishman,” which does not hinder the flashback sequences as much as might be expected, although the age difference between Boseman and his fellow actors does feel wider upon closer inspection.

Subtle when he wants to be and demonstrative when he feels he has to be to make his point, Lee commands “Da 5 Bloods” with a deft hand behind the director’s chair and a firm grip in the edit bay. 

“Da 5 Bloods” has the auteur’s signature ambivalence to audience reaction, morphing the visual style and pacing of his film as he sees fits with little regard to how the viewer will follow the action. Historical footage/stills are intercut within scenes as they are referenced to accent the narrative, inform the viewer and, at times, jolt them out of their relative comfort as a third-party observer.

Lee and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel use a variety of aspect ratios to differentiate timelines in the film. 

Present day has a thin, wide cinemascope to reflect both modern filmmaking and take in more of Vietnamese city and jungle landscapes. This works in perfect opposition to the faded, square visuals of flashbacks to “the American War” as it is referenced in the film, where a newsreel style gives a sense of distance and observation while keeping viewers engaged in the moment.

The film’s tremendous and sweeping musical score from Terence Blanchard is paired with poignant and pointed selections from the discography of Marvin Gaye. Lee infuses “Da 5 Bloods” with Gaye’s harmonies to challenge and set the mood of the film – foreshadowing events with the seductive “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” opening the film and an acapella rendition of “What’s Going On” magically priming the audience for the concluding final act.

“Da 5 Bloods” may not have the universal support come awards season that Lee’s previous feature, “BlacKkKlansman,” had on its way to six Oscar nominations including a win for Best Adapted Screenplay. The film’s eccentricities and early summer release may doom a wide campaign, but Lindo rightly should be in the conversation for an individual acting nod with his career-best performance.

It should come as no surprise that Lee struggled to gain traction with studios to make his follow-up to the financially successful “BlacKkKlansman” more avantgarde than his commercial successes and Netflix is ideal for the instant rewatchability of a film that’s in dire need of multiple viewings to fully understand Lee’s point of view.

Cinematically complex and audacious in how it challenges and sparks conversation in its audiences, “Da 5 Bloods” sees a true auteur make a film that’s incredibly timely amid current events and one worth checking out on the streaming service.

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Shirley: The horror of everyday life

Movie goers are often frightened by things that aren’t real – clowns with red balloons living in the sewers, killers that strike in dreams with a bladed claw, vampires, mummies and witches.

But in a simpler, yet somehow more complex way, it’s the things that are plausibly realistic and feel authentic to our own lives that prove to be the greater terror.

While major studios spend large stacks of cash on increasingly bombastic thrills and chills, smaller independent filmmakers find an unsettling world in more intimate settings where tension builds in close quarters and psychologically rather than physically.

Based loosely on the life of Gothic novelist Shirley Jackson, director Josephine Decker’s latest film peers into the 1950s world of Jackson and her husband, a prominent college professor, as they play host to a recently married young couple. As Shirley and Rose grow closer, the newlywed becomes entranced in Shirley’s writing methods in a film that melds fantasy and reality.

Elisabeth Moss plays Shirley with an erratic blend of manic episodes, lucid calm and measured maliciousness that provides the entire film with a center point on which to twist and turn its allegorical, fantastical tale. 

Even in moments when Shirley cannot bring herself to move an inch, Moss is mesmerizing to behold on screen, captivating the audience into a trance with her distant, glossy stare into nothing.

It’s such a multifaceted, layered performance that it almost feels as if Moss is revealing Shirley to viewers like peeling an onion.

Newcomer Odessa Young is equally as entrancing with an ingénue performance as Rose that slowly turns towards a maddening cynicism as her naivety to the world around her is stripped away.

As Shirley begins to envision Rose as Paula, the protagonist in the novel she’s writing, Young steps into that role as well, blurring the lines between the reality of the film and an imagined desperation that led to Paula’s death. 

Young is able to capture both Rose and Paula with subtle flourishes that might indicate to the viewer which of the two audiences are seeing, but the differences Young plays with are so minute that viewers’ reality becomes warped in scenes that become increasingly melancholic psychological warfare played on the characters and the audience themselves.

The men of “Shirley” take a relative backseat to Shirley and Rose’s ever-changing friendship, although veteran character actor Michael Stuhlbarg turns in a wonderfully devious performance as Shirley’s calculating husband Stanley.

Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins adapt Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel “Shirley: A Novel” with the same tension and dread that one might find in Jackson’s writing.

Expertly written with memorable, dry dialogue, it’s a treatise on rebellion from traditional gender roles for women at the time and nihilism on a woman’s lack of standing in regard to her spouse and her peers.

Moss and Young dance a delicate balance between all the overt and subversive themes that plague both Shirley and Rose which draw them together as unlikely kin, but it’s never aggressive or over-the-top. The terror comes from the inevitability of events and the horrors of everyday life and both actresses ease into the tension naturally that gives “Shirley” an authentic feel despite the film’s largely fictionalized story.

“Shirley” is just as eccentric and temperamental a film as its title character, fervently mixing its tones, plot structure and character development to elude, captivate and intrigue its audience.

A horror tragedy where real life holds the terror rather than jump scares, “Shirley” commands attention from the first frame with its subtle, haunting demeanor.

Decker and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen keep the film increasingly askew visually by orienting the frame just left or right of center on the actor – thus shattering the rule of thirds – or twisting the camera as if the viewer were looking at the action with a tilted head. This also extends to the wide and varied use of closeups, which never feel cohesive or identical from use to use and often feel a bit too personal, just as Shirley does with her houseguests.

Although loosened qualifications due to the coronavirus pandemic does make it eligible for Oscar consideration, “Shirley” will likely be too avant-garde for Academy voters and just in the right wheelhouse for critics’ groups and the Film Independent Spirit Awards, where Moss will be a frontrunner for Best Actress among Picture, writing and directorial nominations for the film as a whole.

An audacious and captivating independent arthouse mystery drama, “Shirley” won’t sit well with many potential audiences but for those wanting more of Moss’ terrific work in genre films like “The Invisible Man” or “Her Smell” will find “Shirley” an alluring, thrillingly horrible feature they just can’t turn away from.

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The Half of It: Dig deeper into Netflix’s vault

Two out of every three Netflix Original films aren’t worth the price of admission.

They’re the bargain bin, direct-to-DVD level fodder usually starring David Spade or that one girl who used to be on that one television show back in the day. You don’t remember her name, but it doesn’t really matter.

With the coronavirus pandemic keeping movie theaters closed, it’s prime ground for viewers to flock to streaming services like Netflix in spades. But how do you decipher the good from the bad while thumbing through titles at random based on algorithms and past viewing history?

Netflix hopes audiences will use their formulas to find movies like “The Lovebirds,” a subpar comedy starring Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae that the streamer bought from Paramount Pictures after COVID-19 made its way across the United States.

With endless suggestions of “You Might Also Like” or “Recommended for You,” it’s a film with minority stars with name appeal that the service wants to draw attention to.

Hidden somewhere in the middle, however, is a smaller independent film, “The Half of It,” dropped as an “original” about a month ago with no word of mouth and without the technical profile afforded to bigger names in lesser films.

Writer/director Alice Wu’s romantic comedy based loosely around the classic tale of “Cyrano de Bergerac,” “The Half of It” follows Ellie, a young Asian-American girl out of place in rural Washington convinced by a jock to write a love letter to his crush, only to find herself falling for the crush as well.

It’s a film that quotes Oscar Wilde and opens with an animated sequence recreating an Ancient Greek myth about the separation of the soul, longing to find your other half and that feeling when the two halves meet. Sophisticated in its language but relatable at its core, “The Half of It” is an earnest, well-made romantic dramedy released at the perfect time for those looking for simple goodness.

Star of television’s “Nancy Drew,” newcomer Leah Lewis blends a wry humor and kind soul with the sort of hopeless romanticism that people feel but never truly express. She’s able to express Ellie’s isolation as an outsider from an emotional level but in a way that feels honest for a character naturally reserved and apprehensive about her perception among her peers.

Daniel Diemer gives Paul an endearing naïveté that makes the typical jock character feel richer and less of a simpleton stereotype. His Paul wears his heart on his sleeve but has no idea how to show its and Diemer plays this well with facial expressions that make his longing seem charming and his pleading for help romantic rather than desperate.

Alexxis Lemire does a wonderful job playing Aster with a performance typical of the ideal “manic pixie dream girl” trope of certain romantic comedies, the love interest audiences can relate to and adore from afar without ever truly getting to know. Lemire is enthusiastically approachable while working with Wu to create a character that hides her true feelings and intentions behind a candy-coated wall of innocence.

Wu’s adoration for these three characters envelopes the entirety of “The Half of It,” from her nuanced screenplay to the way in which she directs the film and positions the audiences firmly in Ellie’s corner with lingering feelings for those she comes into contact with.

The film’s romances are not about lusting but rather innocent longing, which gives “The Half of It” a wholesome feel without becoming overly sappy. As Ellie suggests during an early narration, this isn’t a love story or “at least one where anyone gets what they want.”

There’s a sense of authenticity to this sort of storytelling, an honesty that comes out in the screenplay and the performances that make “The Half of It” feel earnest and plausible in viewers’ own lives even if the actual events would never occur to them or someone they know.

Though it wanders off at times with superfluous side plots, the core triangle of pseudo-friendship and romance-at-a-distance between Ellie, Paul and Aster are so compelling that makes “The Half of It” an elegant, yet simple and sincere independent dramedy well worth checking out on Netflix.

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Emma: Comedic matters of the heart

Smaller films – like independent features or period dramas – usually require word of mouth to jump start their box office success and get in front of as many eyes as possible.

Autumn de Wilde made her feature directorial debut in February with a modest period comedy that was about to take off commercially after early critical success.

Then the novel coronavirus pandemic forced movie theaters to close and her film, “Emma,” went from playing across the country to $20 on-demand streaming within a matter of two weeks.

Films like “Emma” that were in this flux point are now beginning to see wider audiences with cheaper online rental prices as well as Redbox, and there’s simply not a better film from a pack that includes “The Invisible Man,” “The Call of the Wild” and “The Way Back” of these pandemic casualties for new viewers to take a chance on than de Wilde’s audaciously vibrant and fun adaptation.

Based on the classic novel of the same name by Jane Austen, “Emma” follows the titular character as she meddles in the romantic lives of those around her in a small English village in the name of playing “matchmaker” only to become drawn into the world of romance herself. 

Anya Taylor-Joy is transcendent as Emma, relishing the opportunity to play with Austen’s dialogue in sharp quips or overly polite platitudes.

Her choices are deliberate and forceful but done with a grace that fits the time period and still represents the modern sensibilities that de Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton layer into the structure of the adaptation.

But where her effort truly shines is in her eyes, which captivate and draw audiences into Emma’s mindset as de Wilde keeps the camera lingering on Taylor-Joy despite the action of a scene playing out elsewhere, so viewers are privy to Emma’s inner monologue.

With the flicker of a lash or a turn of the ball, Taylor-Joy expresses so much with her eyes in cast aside glances, eye rolls and longing looks that de Wilde frames beautifully in a variety of portrait angles.

Mia Goth takes admiration and glee to considerable heights before bringing Emma’s closest friend Harriet into her own woman. Goth does an exceptional job of subtly mimicking Taylor-Joy’s physical mannerisms without overly calling attention to how much Harriet longs to be Emma, a delicate balance that never feels over the line. 

Bill Nighy is wonderful as always as Emma’s father Mr. Woodcock, infusing his character with a charming general unawareness of events around him, but with plenty of gravitas that cements the distinction other characters place on him and his ability to seemingly break out of his stupor to show off the great man Woodcock once was.

The film’s terrific supporting cast provide plentiful color to the world of “Emma,” with Miranda Hart’s endearing annoyance as Miss Bates and Johnny Flynn’s lustful, bordering on duplicitous turn as town preacher Mr. Elton as standouts.

“Emma” suffers early to fully orient viewers unfamiliar with the Austen novel in the world of Highbury, a small town in the English countryside whose residents each display unique eccentricities in rapid fire, almost whispered dialogue that may leave newcomers spinning.

Once audiences find their place, however, the repartee and dynamic vision for the film create the perfect setting for fantastic period comedy.

The picturesque setting and remarkable production design are well framed by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, who captures events either with a wide berth to give a sense of scale and grandeur or in tightly on characters faces and profiles, which offers a more artistic approach.

Even if there weren’t a dearth of feature films eligible due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, “Emma” would still be a strong contender for Academy Award consideration for its vibrant, colorful production design by Kave Quinn and brilliantly textured, eye-popping costumes from Oscar winner Alexandra Byrne.

Both critical elements of the film are beyond reproach from a technical level and yet give “Emma” a distinctly modern feel well in keeping with de Wilde’s vision for the film as a whole and Taylor-Joy’s magnetic performance that should still be on the minds of voters months from now.

Fans of “Downton Abbey,” Jane Austen novels or the Oscar nominated period farce comedy “The Favourite” will find themselves giggling with pleasure at the dry witted, well crafted “Emma.” With a terrific directorial debut and a magnetic lead performance, it’s a must see at home watch for ardent cinephiles struggling to find something new on a streaming service.

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The Rhythm Section: The inner soul of pain

Movie trailers can be a deceptive thing.

They can make comedies seem side-splittingly funny even though they used all the good jokes in the ad. Horror flicks can seem scarier in two minutes of previews than 95 minutes of an actual feature.

And in some cases, a wily editor can cut together a trailer that changes the genre and intent of a film altogether, misleading potential audiences to think they’re getting something that they’re not and tanking the long-term viability of a movie in search of getting viewers to buy tickets opening weekend.

Pushed as a high-voltage action thriller with a dazzling, beautiful lead actress, “The Rhythm Section” is a slow-burn espionage drama about a woman’s search for revenge and redemption following unimaginable loss.

This isn’t “witness the birth of an assassin” as the film’s tagline suggests.

It’s “observe the rebirth of a victim who’s not dead yet.”

Director Reed Morano’s feature follows Stephanie Patrick, a woman whose idyllic life shatters after the death of her entire family in a plane crash. When a journalist finds her prostituting and taking drugs to ease her pain, the information he reveals to her sets Stephanie on a collision course with the truth that the crash might not have been accidental.

Given a part with real depth, Blake Lively has the ability to be the best actress in any scene opposite any other performer. “The Rhythm Section” gives Lively the time and character background to immerse herself into a world of emotional frailty and loss covered by an almost impenetrable facade of numbed apathy.

Her transformation as Stephanie from joyful to hopeless soul to would-be revenge assassin builds around the emotional burden Stephanie carries first, with flashbacks drawing audiences into her mental state and grounding the whole film with the weight of her sorrow.

The why Stephanie acts the way she does and decides to go on her quest for revenge – an attempt to make herself somewhat whole again – is more important to “The Rhythm Section” than the how she actually carries out her missions. 

Her soul ripping apart at the seams in high-stress moments brings about the sort of fractured humanity that blockbuster action films just won’t delve into and Lively excels in these moments as Stephanie’s humanity causes hesitations that become her biggest flaw in her new line of work and her biggest asset in regaining herself.

Jude Law is solid, not spectacular as a former MI6 agent who takes Stephanie under his wing and points her safely into harm’s way, while Sterling K. Brown tries hard but feels out of sync with the rest of the film as an intelligence broker Stephanie seeks information from.

Action scenes are not as big and bold as the film’s trailer – and likely a majority of its initial audience – projected. Like the rest of “The Rhythm Section,” violence is intimate and in close quarters to keep audiences firmly in Stephanie’s mind as events whirl around her. The camera rarely strays from her vantage point, which amps up the urgency of scenes.

Visually, “The Rhythm Section” benefits from Oscar-nominated cinematographer Sean Bobbitt teaming up with Morano – a cinematographer in her own right – to progress the style of the film from chaotic, drug-induced mania to a colder, distant look as the camera work mirrors Stephanie’s evolution as a character. Bobbitt makes an arresting use of light and shadow to give the film a gritty texture uncommon to action films outside of the Jason Bourne franchise.

“The Rhythm Section” was never going to work on the big screen, especially not with the pressure placed on its success by Paramount to recoup its $50 million budget by immediately placing the film in over 3,000 theaters during late January.

An arthouse film released in a blockbuster world, “The Rhythm Section” fits the mold of theatrical adaptations of John le Carré novels like “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “A Most Wanted Man” or intimate spy thrillers like Steven Soderbergh’s underappreciated 2012 gem “Haywire.”

With movie audiences staying at home and in constant need of something different, perhaps a fantastic leading effort from Lively, grounded drama and rich cinematography, there’s hardly a better time to take a chance on this well-made arthouse espionage thriller.

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Extraction: Violence in the melodrama

Sam Hargrave’s directorial debut couldn’t have gone much better.

The former stunt coordinator and second unit director landed Thor himself, Australian actor Chris Hemsworth to play the film’s lead with a script written by “Avengers: Endgame” co-director Joe Russo.

Within its first month, over 90 million people have seen Hargrave’s “Extraction” and a sequel to the Netflix original action thriller has already been greenlit for production after the coronavirus pandemic ends.

“Extraction” follows Tyler Rake, a former Australian special forces operative turned mercenary tasked with rescuing the son of a top Indian drug lord from his main Bangladeshi rival. Infiltrating into the heart of Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital city, Rake must avoid rogue agents, police and military personnel as well as drug syndicate members to sneak the teen out of the country safely.

Hemsworth is an exceptional choice to play Tyler Rake, a solid actor who knows how to use his imposing physicality effectively in combat situations. Hemsworth and Hargrave work together to create a dynamic energy to the way Rake moves through a fight sequence, always pushing forward into the next attack and relying on instinct to propel Rake through a constant survival mode.

The Australian actor also does a solid job of remaining numb to the outside world for the majority of “Extraction,” only allowing Rake’s emotions to boil to the surface once things have broken down too far.

Most of the rest of the cast is unremarkably bland, aside from Rudhraksh Jaiswal as the kidnapped teen, Ovi, who shows appropriate fear and a great amount of heart, and David Harbour in a solid supporting role as a former teammate of Rake’s trying to survive in Bangladesh as a mercenary.

The best action movie to be released since movie theaters closed in March, “Extraction” excels in the stunt-heavy sequences that prove to be in Hargrave’s wheelhouse.

A combination of tactical gun battles and hand-to-hand combat in close proximity to the camera, the film evokes both the brutality of the “John Wick” franchise and the finesse of “Atomic Blonde,” a Charlize Theron-led action spy thriller that Hargrave served as stunt coordinator on.

The film’s signature set piece is an 11-minute chase sequence to conclude the first act of “Extraction,” where Hargrave uses techniques made popular in films like last year’s “1917” to cut the scene together in a way where it appears to the audience to be one continuous shot.

Cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel – solid throughout – is especially effective here as he weaves audiences through a forest into a small town, in and out of buildings and car crashes without slowing the relentless pace and explosive firepower.

There’s an expert fluidity to how the camera dances around the action in full 360 degrees, synced in time with Hargrave’s flawless fight choreography that has Hemsworth fend off up to five assailants at a time with both his fists and an array of weapons at Rake’s disposal. This sequence, along with a pivotal set piece on a crowded bridge, are worth taking a chance on the film alone.

“Extraction” tries very hard to be something more than just brutality. The screenplay – penned by Russo based on a story from several writers including Russo’s brother Anthony – works at layering multiple relationships between fathers and sons as motivation for action in the plot.

One father forces another father to rescue his son by threatening harm to the second father’s son; Rake refuses to give up on his assignment because he sees his own son in Ovi and cannot bring himself to let Ovi die.

In between all the gruesome killing and intense chase sequences, “Extraction” cranks the volume down to nearly zero with mundane, predictable melodrama that serves as both emotional palate cleanser and bathroom break time before things kick into gear again.

Like something straight out of a morning soap opera, familial strife and personal loss are shown poorly to an excruciating degree as Hemsworth’s Rake floats in and out of hazy flashbacks set to an intentionally wistful score from composers Alex Belcher and Henry Jackman.

While necessary to flesh out the plot, these interludes are so poorly executed by Hargrave and his team that they become a wet blanket for the entire film.

But for a director taking a significant step up from crew work to a major Netflix feature, “Extraction” highlights Hargrave’s immense talent crafting excellent action sequences that lift the entire project to must see territory for about 30-35 minutes of a nearly two-hour film.

Casual viewing on a streaming platform is the ideal scenario for watching this action thriller that will entertain on a Friday evening at home.

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Arkansas: One too many slashes

When actors make the transition from being in front of the camera to behind it in the director’s chair, the quality of their work can vary greatly depending on not just their talent in a new role on a film set.

First time directors may lean on key assistants or department heads to help shape their vision or these actors may want to direct themselves on screen, fully immersing themselves in multiple worlds simultaneously.

Clark Duke – a veteran comic actor known for smaller roles in ensemble films and guest spots on TV sitcoms – makes the leap with his feature directorial debut “Arkansas,” based on the 2009 novel of the same name by John Brandon.

On top of directing and producing “Arkansas,” Duke also co-wrote the screenplay with Andrew Boonkrong and cast himself as Swin, one of two naïve drug dealers who serve as the film’s protagonists.

Cutting across much of the South but set primarily in the titular state, “Arkansas” follows Kyle and Swin as they attempt to climb the ranks of a drug trafficking ring led by a mysterious dealer known simply as Frog. After a job turns bad, Kyle and Swin are forced to keep up appearances while dealing with the fallout that could get them killed.

On paper, it’s a feature with elements of traditional crime, noir and black comedy that would appeal to a broad audience, but “Arkansas” is a middling independent movie that suffers most from its creator taking on far too much. 

The film’s significant identity crisis stems from Duke wanting to put every idea he had from a writing perspective into the screenplay, trying to emulate all his favorite directors and their contrasting styles and on top of all of that, reinvent himself as an actor by taking on a meaty, transformational part unlike anything he’s ever done before.

Technically, Duke achieves all of this with “Arkansas.”

His script is inventive, playing with the narrative structure both in time-jumping between decades and focusing on different characters by breaking up the film into chapters as master screenwriter Quentin Tarantino might do.

Duke’s direction is engaging, pushing a heavy hand visually at times with bold night cinematography that helps set the mood of “Arkansas;” although it’s not particularly surprising that the film’s best scenes directorially come when Duke’s Swin isn’t in them, which allows the filmmaker to focus on the whole scene and not confine himself to a single character.

As an on-screen performer, Duke swings for the fences with a nearly unrecognizable look, hiding behind glasses and a wiry mustache, dulling his accent slightly and evoking a strange combination of Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Steve Buscemi for the film’s most interesting performance.

And yet, all the pieces that Duke assembles together to create the world he envisioned for 
“Arkansas” become a garbled noir mess with mixed tones that reflect his love for Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” one minute and the Coen brothers’ “No Country For Old Men” the next.

A strong ensemble cast led by John Malkovich’s signature eccentricity as a state park ranger and Vince Vaughn maintaining understated composure in a significant role as a pawn shop owner give “Arkansas” plenty of flavor that it richly needs, while Eden Brolin (daughter of Josh) is a welcome surprise as Swin’s love interest.

Characters in “Arkansas” are vague, but memorable enough to have a Tarantino-esque vibe that any one of them could have their own story or film made about them.

The rare exception here is Liam Hemsworth’s Kyle, who gives a solid effort opposite Duke but isn’t rough enough around the edges to play the sort of dirtbag that would pair well with Swin. It’s key to the success or failure of the film that Swin and Kyle feel like they’ve come from similar backgrounds to wind up at the same place, but Hemsworth isn’t matching Duke’s dedication to the part and falls flat relative to the rest of the cast.

“Arkansas” suffers greatly from missing out on a theatrical release, opting for a May 5 release on Bluray and streaming platforms after the film’s world premiere at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s a movie that needs an actively engaged, rowdy audience to laugh and reinforce the film’s dark humor and it needs a confining theater to prevent viewers from checking out as Duke resets the film over and over again by switching decades and perspectives.

The best chance for “Arkansas” to find its audience and have viewers appreciate its uneven eccentricities is for people to wait until the film inevitably lands on a streaming service where viewers can take a free chance on Duke’s directorial debut.

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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.