Movie Preview: Forest Whitaker and “Burden” sneak into a few theaters Feb. 28

The KKK opens a museum whitewashing its history in a South Carolina town, and a pastor tries to blunt its message by reaching out to a grand dragon. Garret Hedlund and the omnipresent Andrea Riseborough also star.

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Movie Review: The “Cabaret Maxime” is the nightclub of your drunken mob-movie dreams


Imagine a nightclub that’s a mad melange of old school burlesque, classic balladeers and jumped-up Portuguese Latin rock, of strippers and stand-up comedy with an occasional dominatrix.

It’s old fashioned showbiz set in a mobbed-up milieu with “Goodfellas” decor, way too many “Sopranos” alumni and an actual daughter of Bobby Freakin’ DeNiro.

Can’t exist anywhere except for “Sin City,” right? A neon netherworld version of New York where all these dese-dem-dose actors have to be imported to Lisbon, where there’s no hint of “fado” but the street signs and police sirens are strictly European Union Portugal.

That’s “Cabaret Maxime,” a lurid lounge where Bennie Gazza (Michael Imperioli) presides, putting on a show like nobody ever put on a show. You’d pay to see a night of strippers with tigers, a hot band, bustiers and the last comic and MC to still tell comic stories (John Ventigmilia).

Three things about this cabaret, invented by Portuguese New Yorker writer-director Bruno de Almeida (“On the Run,” Operation Autumn”) , are worth noting.

One, I’d pay good money for an evening in a joint like that. So might you. The cover charge would have to be in the multiple C-note range for them to break even, though.

Two, the movie’s an odd catalog of cliches, over-familiar “running a night club with mob influence” riffs and dialogue that sounds improvised, often feebly.

And three, go back to point one. This setting, this set-up and this cast would make a pretty cool cable series, a “Sopranos” with a house band, a few tenors, coloraturas and altos to go with the strippers and wise guys.

As Bennie says at one point during the movie, “Not sure I get it, but I’ll drink to it.”

Bennie’s running this place at the pleasure of his made-man landlord and watered-down liquor supplier, Mr. Gus (David Proval). He’s married to his star attraction, emotionally troubled dancer/stripper Stella (Ana Padrão).

“Remember, Stella means STAR!”

He books acts through the ever-enthusiastic goof, Ripa (Mike Starr).

The house band is Ena Pá 2000, with guest guitarist Phil Mendrix, but the songs cover decades of American (and European) pop, with balladeer Sandro Core taking a bow.

Then, these goombahs (Nick Sandow, Anthony Siciliano and John Frey) set up a tacky “high end” strip joint across the street, and the trouble starts.

Virtually everybody in this with extra vowels in his name was on “The Sopranos,” so you kind of know every place “Cabaret Maxime” is going to take you long before it gets there.

It’s a somewhat flippant spin around the mob-backed-nightclub block, with violence that seems preordained without the care of “consequences” that might come later.

But like Mr. Gus says, “You get old, you make’a coupla bucks, then you die.” Why sweat logic or extravagantly pricey overhead or dialogue that struggles with “When’s the last time you had a good tomato?”

The cast is game, with Imperioli and Ventimiglia, Sandow and the Portuguese Padrão standing out.

The players, the colorful milieu and the parade of nightclub acts make this a fun if somewhat undigested night out, chased with a hangover.

To Bennie, to me, and maybe to you — Who knows? — all that matters is this.

“I’m not a pimp. I’m in SHOW business.”

Sometimes — badda-bing, badda-boom — that’s enough.


MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, nudity, sexual situations, alcohol abuse

Cast: Michael Imperioli, Ana Padrão , John Ventimiglia, Drena De Niro, Nick Sandow, Arthur J. Nascarella, David Proval, Mike Starr

Credits: Directed by Bruno de Almeida , script by Bruno de Almeida  and John Frey. A Giant Pictures release.

Running time: 1:35

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Movie Review: “Vitalina Varela” travels far to learn about the husband who left her




The austere beauty of “Vitalina Varela” is in faces of its characters, the darkness that envelops a corner of Lisbon tourists rarely see.

It’s a somber, lyrical and relentlessly understated meditation on grief and a grudge, the story of a wife from the Cabo Verde Islands, a former Portuguese colony, who finally flies to Lisbon to join her husband. She’s been “waiting for my plane ticket for forty years,” Vitalina says (in Portuguese Kriol, with English subtitles).

She arrives three days after his burial, greeted at the airport by a striking Greek chorus of Capo Verdean expats who knew Joaquim. They are the airplane’s cleaning crew, who tell her “There is nothing for you in Portugal. Go home.”

In tenements of perpetual shadow, stark stucco walls without paint or decoration, she comes to the house where Joaquim lived, meets with and feeds mourners and starts to piece together the life that he had — a house with a leaky roof he never fixed, other women. If she’s looking for “closure,” Vitalina would never admit it.

“I won’t cry for no wretched man.”

Men who knew him talk of his dreams of fixing up the place for her arrival. But she knows better. When no one else is around, she growls her mistrust at the corpse she was not in time to verify. “Are you buried in the ground?”

Vitalina looks to the palsied priest (Ventura) for answers, but he has none. He has struggled to keep a hovel of a church going, to forgive himself for the sins of his past and failings on behalf of his flock. But “there is nothing sadder than a priest in this place…Nobody helps us.”

If Vitalina wants to speak with her husband, she must learn Portuguese, he insists. She can walk the dark, narrow streets and overgrown paths, looking for signs of him, for his body, but “there is nothing left for you here. The door has no lock.”

The screen compositions — almost all of them shrouded in darkness — are one perfect image after another. But the story is as spare and relentlessly shadowy as the images writer-director Pedro Costas and cinematographer Leonardo Simões conjure. Few characters are identified by name, relationships are sketchy, motives for any moment that isn’t Vitalina muttering in the dark about Joaquim’s formerly industrious nature abandoned for the skirt-chasing that brought him to Lisbon, are vague.

The film is a sort-of sequel to “Horse Money,” a Costas film in which Vitalina Varela also appeared and which is where we first learned of her sad married past — a husband who left for Lisbon and who never sent her the promised plane ticket to join him.

All of which tend to subsume the current film’s story and make “Vitalina Varela” inexcusably obscure. Beautiful as it is, it won’t be to every taste.

But there’s a richness in the title character (playing a fictionalized version of herself) turning this milieu bleak and forbidding with her brooding arrival. And there’s regret and recompense in the fleeting glimpses of daylight that arrive as she starts to assert her will — for a proper funeral — and remembers the poor but promising past they had back on those rocky, waterless islands off the coast of Senegal.


MPAA Rating: unrated, death and smoking images.

Cast: Vitalina Varela, Ventura

Credits: Directed by Pedro Costa, script by Pedro Costa and Vitalina Varela.  A Grasshopper release.

Running time: 2:03






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Next screening? Pixar’s “Onward”

Pixar’s trailers rarely give away enough of the movie to let you write the picture off pre release.

The “Onward” trailers have left me cold.

But you just don’t know, even if Disney Animation has stolen their thunder, even if their new ideas cannot compete with endless “Toy Story” sequels.

We could be looking at another “Inside/Out.” Fingers crossed.

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Movie Review: You just never know how much “The Night Clerk” sees


“The Night Clerk” is a murder mystery with a killer premise. A man with Asperger’s witnesses a killing.

The movies and TV, which have treated this as a “Malady of the Month” for a few years now, teach us what to expect. Such a man, with his social awkwardness, manic chatter and refusal to make eye contact, would be an exasperating suspect and a maddening witness.

And if this thriller lacks much in the way of tension and suspense, if it loses track of the “crime” while it tries to flesh out the title character, a fine cast lifts the material and makes it worth your trouble.

Tye Sheridan (“Ready Player One”) is Bart, short for “Bartholomew,” a 23 year-old who has held onto an overnight desk clerk at a nice hotel for a few years. He is smart, even if his social skills are classic “on the spectrum” clumsy.

But Bart has applied his tech savvy to his “problem.” He wears a tiny camera in his tie in order to review and “correct” his inept interactions with the customers.

“How’s it going?” requires rehearsal. “Have a nice evening” is worth running through a few times, too.

Bart lives in his Mom’s basement, where she (Helen Hunt) gives him his space, leaves his meals on the steps and doesn’t watch him in front of his bank of video monitors. That’s a good thing, because Bart isn’t just about self-improvement.

Bart’s made the leap to the next step. He’s slipped cameras into hotel rooms, spying on guests, memorizing how they act with their dogs — “Boy oh boy oh boy, what did you DO?” — and as often as not, getting a peep show in the process.

That’s how he witnesses a murder. He can see it unfolding, an angry confrontation between a woman (Jacque Gray) and someone we assume is her cheating husband. Bart gapes at the violence, freaks out a bit and dashes back to work only get get there after the shot is fired.

She’s dead. He sits on her bed, hears “Don’t touch anything” from the other clerk,” and the moment the guy’s gone to call the cops, dabs his finger in the pool of blood surrounding her body.

John Leguizamo plays the detective who sizes Bart up, tries to get a rise out of him even as the clerk is blurting out his elaborate cover for why he was there.

“And that’s the story? I know you’ve got issues…”

“I DO.”

Oscar winner Hunt summons up her best Mamma Bear, fending off the cops. What does she know? What will they find out?

Bart, seemingly freaked out by the events as they happened, now has refocused his mind on his cover-up. And then another guest — played by Ana de Armas of “Knives Out,” — beautiful and inclined to be empathetic to his condition (“My brother had it.”) becomes his focus.

Actor turned writer-director Michael Cristofer collected a Tony and a Pulitzer for his play “The Shadow Box” over 40 years ago. His screen career has been spotty, with “Original Sin,” a thriller with similar bones starring Banderas and Jolie the stand-out credit.

He gives Sheridan the standard-issue “Asperger’s/On the Spectrum” tics and give-away moments — blurting out “You need to lose weight” to a car salesman, “I don’t want to wear anything you’d wear…because you’re old” to a haberdasher.

The scenes between Bart and Andrea have a pained confessional quality, and “brother had it” or no, seem a bit contrived.

The picture’s nocturnal gloom serves it well, matching the creep tone of young-guy-who-likes-to-“watch” story. Cristofer doesn’t do much with the “mystery,” and suspense is reserved for those moments when we wonder if Bart will just watch, or take action.

The dialogue is serviceable but generic in scene after scene. But Hunt, Leguizamo, Sheridan and de Armas put it over with feeling and let their eyes and investment in the characters do the heavy lifting.

If “The Night Clerk” rises above “near miss” status, that’s thanks to the cast.



MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexual references, brief nudity and violent images

Cast: Tye Sheridan, Ana de Armas, Helen Hunt, John Leguizamo, Johnathan Schaech and Jacque Gray.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Michael Cristofer. A Saban Films release.

Running time: 1:30

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Movie Preview: Horror animates Shatner, Dani Lennon and Ray Wise”To Your Last Death”

This bad boy comes our way Mar. 17 — streaming, VOD.


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Netflixable? Cuaron takes us inside his “details” for “Road to Roma”


Did you swoon over Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” his lyrical but meandering two hour and 15 minute recreation of his middle class Mexico City upbringing, as seen mostly through the eyes of his indigenous nanny?

The black and white memoir won three Oscars, as best foreign language film, for best director and best cinematography.

I found it rambling, somewhat shapeless, an indulgent movie that set the standard for Netflix’s “Great Filmmakers Get a Blank Check” series (see “The Irishman”).

The “making of” that movie documentary, “Road to ‘Roma'” (“Camino a Roma”) does nothing to soften my stance on the picture (lovely, but over-rated). Because if anything it allows Cuarón to double down on his choices.

His is the only voice, as eyewitness, to the movie. He is the sole interview subject. He describes the “challenge” working without a script and with a lot of non-actors around them was for the film’s professional actors. He talks about what the production designers did to recreate “the neighborhood I grew up in” (in Spanish, with English subtitles).

Nobody else gets to speak for themselves, even if they’re unlikely to have contradicted him.

The on-set footage is far less revealing than your average “making of” doc, although including a little casting clip and the odd rehearsal for the largely improvised “chaotic” scenes of family meals, sketched-out conversations and the like show us the technique he was using and what he was going for.

Cuarón says he was telling a story, pre-“Y tu Mama Tambien” — from the nanny of that film’s point of view.

He’s famous for paying homage to other filmmakers in his work, but he insists he did not for “Roma.” So all those Fellini-esque touches we all saw were…imagined?

A telling quote — he recalls the story of how Luchino Visconti, for his 1973 bio-pic “Ludwig” about Bavaria’s indulgent, Cinderella’s castle-crazy 19th century king, had the epic cakes made for feast scenes from the original ingredients baked in the original style, not something the viewing audience would realize and pick up on.

“A stubborn whim,” Cuarón says he USED to think when recalling that. But for “Roma,” a movie of “moments” and “details” and “memories” — whose director obsessed over tile and vintage clocks and products and posters and the tenor of street vendor’s calls in the chaotic market scenes — such forest-for-the-trees fanaticism was “liberating.”

At least that explains why I kept thinking of another infamous cinematic indulgence king, Eric von Stroheim. He’d do a period piece and insist that the performers wear period-correct underwear, which the camera would never see.

Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” is another ready reference for this “I can get this exactly right, matching my vision/memory” obsessive sort of detailed filmmaking.

Not that “Roma” is the debacle either of those two produced. All great artists are obsessives. But in the many boring stretches of “Roma,” it’s heartening to hear Cuarón confirm he at least realized how this might come off –“Come on, now. This is a bit much and kind of pointless.”

Fretting over that image of soapy water washing over the courtyard tiles, admitting that “details” were “the film for me,” not script (he didn’t have one), not the “narrative plumbing” that he and his co-writer brother are famous for, but “intangible sensations,” it’s as if he’s inventing a new “Netflix” style borne of old “runaway production” Hollywood horror stories.

He did it this way because they said he could. Unfolding overlong vignettes, changing settings that mean everything to the director/creator but little to the casual viewer, revelling in a sort of guilt-ridden “So THIS was my nanny’s life” way, but only occasionally — it’s a movie that isn’t aging well, in my memory, at least.


“Road to ‘Roma'” is a short refresher course on why that’s an Oscar winner that I have little urge to ever see again.


MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Alfonso Cuarón.

Credits: Directed by Andres Clariond and Gabriel Nuncio. A Netflix original.

Running time: 1:12

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Documentary Preview: Cemetery abuse going back over a century, in Louisville, “Facing East”

It isn’t just funeral homes that get caught ripping off the grieving. Cemeteries do it, too.

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Netflixable? “Miss Virginia” organizes DC parents for change


“Miss Virginia” is a thinly-scripted, flatly-directed feel-good movie about mothers organizing to do better for their children than Washington, D.C.’s school system.

“Inspired by a true story,” it recounts the way a working class Washington mother figures out that the schools there aren’t starving for cash and that their symbolic Congressional representation only has the power to stand in the way of change.

It’s a soft and squishy picture built on a soft and squishy performance of the title character by Uzo Aduba of “Orange is the New Black.” She has to carry this film, but her decision to play her overwhelmed single mom struggling to do rescue her teen son passively — not raising her voice, saving her lose-her-cool moments for the third act — never gives this movie a chance.

Miss Virginia’s son James (Niles Fitch) is a distracted, artsy 15 year-old who cuts class with the local thugs, and when he’s in class he just inattentively doodles. Mom doesn’t have a clue until the principal warns her.

She sees the classroom environment, teachers past the point of caring, punks beating up the “smart” kids on principle, as the reason James is failing. So the call-center operator takes on a second job cleaning her Congresswoman’s (Aunjanue Ellis) offices.

Virginia loves her Congresswoman. Until she sees how she operates, who she answers to and how she manipulates her constituents. Showing the representative a study that details the staggering amounts D.C. pays per student for failing schools and failing students is no way to get on her good side.

And taking the matter up with the flaky, entrenched Midwestern Congressman (Matthew Modine, wild-haired, whiskey-sipping and whimsical) who authored that “reactionary” study seems like a non-starter, too.

“I have a date with a nine iron!”


But eventually, they team up and a “movement” to create private school scholarships for the District’s kids begins. Petitions, public meetings, protests (and arrests) follow, as James and his running mates dabble in drug dealing for “cool kicks (sneakers).” That’s what finally  gets Virginia’s dander up.

“Selling your SOUL for clown shoes!” does it.

Unfortunately, that’s too little, too late for the character and the movie. The problem is as obvious as Aduba’s every scene with Modine, Ellis, with Vanessa Williams (as a chat show hostess) or with Amirah Vann, playing a neighborhood ally and organizer.

“This a movement, honey. It don’t stop just because you caught the vapors!”

They all take over their scenes with her, overwhelming the star with acting sparkle and simple charisma. Abuda is a talented actress, but her limited range and dull acting choices turn “Miss Virginia,” the movie and the character, into a shrinking violet.


MPAA Rating: TV-14, violence, drug content

Cast: Uzo Aduba, Amirah Vann, Aunjanue Ellis, Niles Fitch, Vanessa Williams and Matthew Modine.

Credits: Directed by  R.J. Daniel Hanna, script by Erin O’Connor.  A Vertical release.

Running time: 1:42

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Box Office: ‘Parasite’ crawls over the $50 million mark with a big Presidents Day weekend.

Winning Oscars, doubling the number of screens to 2000 and voila, you make $6.8 million, climb to 7th place in the weekly charts and clear the $50 million mark. Finally.

“Parasite” has now earned over $200 million worldwide.

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