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“MY OCTOPUS TEACHER” My rating: A- (Now on Netflix)

85 minutes | No MPAA rating

No nature documentary you’ve ever seen will quite prepare you for “My Octopus Teacher,” a heart-gripping tale of a friendship (one might even call it a romance) between a human and a mollusk.

This film is a transcendent experience.

Craig Foster is a South African maker of nature docs who several years ago underwent an unspecified professional and personal crisis and retreated to the oceanside vacation home in which he had spent his boyhood summers nearly three decades earlier.

Craig Foster

He found himself drawn to an offshore kelp forest and its aquatic denizens. Despite the chilly water Foster declined to wear a wet suit in his explorations as it interfered with his sensory connection with this watery world; for the same reason he eschewed heavy scuba gear in favor of a simple snorkel, which required him to resurface regularly to take a fresh breath.

It was on one of his casual floats through this environment that Foster came across an octopus. He was initially drawn to this creature because it had used its eight tentacles to collect and grasp an assortment of empty shells, thus camouflaging itself either for protection from predators or because it hid her (the animal was female, though the film never tells us how you sex an cephalopod) from her intended prey.

In any case, Foster was intrigued enough by this sophisticated behavior (a mollusk employing tools?) to seek out the octopus on subsequent dives. He found her den beneath a rock shelf and decided to return every day to study this magnificent alien creature.

Just as important, he was moved to pick up his underwater camera and record these adventures.

Other documentarists have obsessed over the astonishing properties of octopi…for instance, their ability to instantaneously change the color and texture of their skin to blend in with their environment, or to compress their bodies to slip through tiny cracks. Or their multiple brains (a couple in the head, others in the arms).

But for Foster, who recalls his experiences in an awed whisper that suggests some sort of religious conversion, this becomes much more than a case of detached scientific observation.  At one point the octopus — he never gives it a name, thank God — becomes so accustomed to Foster’s presence that it sends out a slender tentacle to wrap around his finger, eventually clutching/stroking his limbs in a case of exploration that soon evolves into, well, a friendship.

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“ALONE” My rating: B (Available on demand on Sept. 18)

96 minutes | No MPAA rating

The woman-in-peril plot has been so overdone that we’re due for an industry-wide embargo.

Before that happens, though, I’m happy to have seen “Alone,” John Hyams’ superior thriller that with a minimum of fuss leaves the nerves tingling.

We meet Jessica (Jules Willcox) packing up her belongings in a U-Haul trailer. She’s leaving Portland; her destination isn’t disclosed, not even to her parents who dun her with phone calls. Basically she heads northeast, into the wilderness.

The first hint that things might not go well comes on the first day when she is nearly run off the road by a jerk in a Jeep.  (Echoes of Spielberg’s “Duel.”)

Next morning, as she’s preparing to pull out from the motel where she spent the night, Jessica is approached by a stranger (Marc Menchacha) who announced he wants to apologize.

This doofus-looking dude (sandy Fu-Manchu ‘stache, oversized aviator glasses) tries to start up a friendly conversation but Jessica wisely isn’t having any of it. She’s suspicious even of the sling in which he keeps one of  his arms.

But getting rid of the guy is a problem. In the wee hours he shows up at a highway rest stop where she’s taking a break; when she gets back on the road she discovers that one of her tires has been slashed.

Nervous yet?

All this has been pulled off by director Hyams and screenwriter Mattias Olsson with a minimum of dialogue. In fact, with the exception of a few voices on the telephone this is a two-person movie.

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“H IS FOR HAPPINESS”  My rating: B- (Available Sept. 18 on VOD/digital)

98 minutes | No MPAA rating

The Aussie “H Is for Happiness” aspires to the quirky uplift of “Amelie,” only for the tweener crowd.

Every now and then it gets there.

John Sheedy’s film is set in a postcard pretty town that seems timeless despite the very modern wind turbines that dot the landscape. It’s the sort of place where kids can run free, playing in the nearby forests and ranging far and wide on their bikes without fear.  We never see a cop, probably because they’d be superfluous.

Our pint-sized heroine is 12-year-old Candice (Daisy Axon), a buoyant amalgam of flaming Pippi Longstocking pigtails, endless freckles and unstoppable optimism.

Candice is a learning nerd, the kind of pint-sized intellectual who asks incredibly complex questions (the teacher is Miriam Margolyes with a disarmingly weird rotating CG eyeball) just as the end-of-session bell rings. She rapturously soaks up the detailed answer  oblivious to the stinkeyes directed at her by groaning classmates, who just want to leave.

Lisa Hoppe’s screenplay attempts to balance (not always gracefully) the essential innocence of Candice’s world view with the grim realities of her life.

Her mother Claire (Emma Booth) is a recluse who never recovered from the death several years before of Candice’s infant sister. Dad Jim (Richard Roxburgh) is a computer repairman and basement inventor embittered by a falling out with his brother. That would be Rich Uncle Brian (Joel Jackson), who made millions off an unspecified creation originally developed with his sibling.

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Bill Skarsgard (left)

“THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME” My rating: B- (Now on Netflix)

138 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Some people are born just so they can be buried.”

That glum observation, spoken by a corrupt lawman, pretty much sums up “The Devil All the Time,” a slow-bubbling stew of old-time religion and blue-collar mayhem.

Imagine a partnership of Flannery O’Conner and Jim Thompson. It’s pretty unpleasant…but has been acted and produced with enough brio to keep us hanging on.

Directed by Antonio Campos (“Christine,” TV’s “The Sinner”) and scripted by Campos and his brother Paulo (from the novel by Donald Ray Pollock), this is a  saga covering 20 years and three generations of a family (two families, actually) living in southern Ohio and nearby West Virginia.

Tom Holland

It’s a world populated by devotees of Ol’ Time Religion, feral and/or delusional preachers, dirty cops and a couple of serial killers who prey on hitchhikers.

The whole thing is narrated by novelist Pollock, who has just the right down-home voice (half sincerity, half deadpan sarcasm,  hint of a twang) to pull it all together.

The story?  Where to begin…”The Devil All the Time” is all over the place.

It starts in 1945 with the return from combat of Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgard), still haunted by what he experienced and rebelling at God. It then follows Willard’s son Arvin (Tom Holland) through a traumatic childhood.

For both father and son religion is more a burden than a comfort, in large part because of the hypocrisies so lavishly displayed by clergymen like the bombastic Roy Laferty (Harry Melling in  spectacularly hypnotic/creepy form) or the snakily seductive Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson), who preys on the naive young things of his congregation.

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Liu Yifei

“MULAN” My rating: B (Begins streaming Sept. 3 on various platforms)

115 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Disney’s new live-action “Mulan” occupies a precarious sweet spot that is hard to establish and perhaps harder to keep.

The film is simple enough (and inoffensive enough) for children, yet possesses ample thematic depth and technical imagination to engage adults.

Well, most adults, anyway. Certainly those adults who will end up watching it with their offspring.

The story is already familiar to many of us, thanks to several centuries of Chinese folklore and numerous film adaptations, especially the 1998 animated Disney version.  The premise finds a young woman, Mulan, disguising herself as a man and taking her aged/injured father’s place in the Emperor’s army in a fight to repel ruthless invaders.

It hardly needs pointing out that the yarn’s feminist credentials remain timely. Moreover, director Niki Caro has made a career of female empowerment with titles like the sublime “Whale Rider” and the gut-punching “North Country.” She knows her way around the subject.

But she also brings to this incarnation martial arts action reminiscent of Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and a David Lean-worthy sense of place and space (although with Lean you knew  those spectacular sunsets and sand dunes were the real deal; here they may have sprung from a computer program).

And in young Chinese star Liu Yifei the film has a heroine able to suggest her character’s inner drive and thoughts while presenting a manly — i.e., emotion-smothering — face to the outside world. (Has there ever been a lead female role with so little smiling?)

This “Mulan” forgoes the musical numbers of the animated version, not to mention the goofy dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy. Instead it emphasizes visual beauty and battle (albeit PG-13 battle…these soldiers die bloodlessly).

The villain here is Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), the scarred, long-haired barbarian leader seeking revenge for the death of his father years before. With an army of gravity-defying ninjas, Bori Khan is relentlessly marching into China, intent on personally slaying the aging Emperor (Jet Li).

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Sergio Chamy, Romulo Aiken

“THE MOLE AGENT”  My rating: B+ (Begins streaming on Sept. 1)

84 minutes | No MPAA rating

The opening of the charming/devastating documentary “The Mole Agent” finds dozens of graying gents in Santiago, Chile, responding to a help-wanted ad for “elderly men between 80 and 90.” (Face it — there aren’t many job opportunities for that particular demographic.)

The ad was placed by Romulo Aiken, the head of a private detective agency, who after a series of semi-comic interviews finally hires 83-year-old Sergio Chamy. Sergio is informed that he will spend the next three months undercover in a nursing facility.  The  daughter of  a resident suspects elder abuse by employees and has launched an elaborate scheme to expose these alleged crimes.

Not only will  Sergio have to learn the ins and outs of an iPhone (so that he can file daily reports with Romulo), but he’s given a pair of high-tech spectacles and a writing pen equipped with mini-cameras with which to record any nefarious goings-on.

Even more amazing, Romulo and filmmaker Maite Alberdi have already infiltrated the retirement home with a camera crew, ostensibly  to do a documentary about elder care but strategically placed to follow Sergio while he interacts with the residents and sleuths out the truth of the situation.

What starts out as a sort of mystery, though, quickly emerges as something else — a funny, heartbreaking examination of aging filled with colorful characters and enough choked-back sobs that wise viewers will keep a box of tissues within easy reach.

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Classic ’60s clothing by Pierre Cardin

“HOUSE OF CARDIN” My rating: B+ (Now available for streaming through Loft Cinema:  loftcinema.org)

95 minutes | No MPAA rating

With only a little hyperbole, an admirer of Pierre Cardin tells the makers of “House of Cardin” that virtually everyone on earth knows the Cardin name.

Apparently, though, nobody knows the man.

Early on in P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes’ documentary, one of Cardin’s cohorts is asked to describe the great designer on a basic human level…and can muster only a blank and helpless look.

In old interview footage Cardin (he’s now 98 years young) admits to having “no sense of self…it’s not me, it’s the brand.”

Indeed, we’re three fourths of the way through this movie before the topic turns to something as fundamental as its subject’s sexuality…and even then it’s more a case of suggestion than assertion.

But if the Cardin personality is elusive, his accomplishments are not.  “House of Cardin” will prove a real eye-opener for those of us (this writer included), who pretty much assumed he was a Parisian fashion designer, period.

The doc’s format mixes filmed interviews Cardin has done over the decades, recent footage of the man still at work and holding court (he’s charming without ever revealing too much), archival photos and footage and tons of reminiscences by the likes of rocker Alice Cooper (Cardin was responsible for bringing Cooper’s Grand Guignol stage show to Paris in the early ’70s), actress Sharon Stone and model Naomi Campbell.

But some of the most informative stuff comes from his colleagues, the people who have worked with him for years and regard him as the benevolent if often exacting father of their big family. The guy couldn’t be a total cipher and elicit that sort of love.

The film deals with the basic biographical stuff up front.  Cardin is Italian, not French.  His family fled Mussolini’s fascist state when Pierre was a boy. During the war he worked for the French Red Cross in Vichy.  With the peace he came to Paris and, with unbelievable good luck, immediately began working in the haute couture fashion houses (Paquin, Dior) to which he aspired.

This self-taught clothing maker was soon collaborating with heavy-duty artistic types like filmmaker/poet Jean Cocteau and actor Jean Marais.  “I was a very good-looking young man,” the white-haired Cardin recalls.  “So everyone wanted to sleep with me.”

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“DRIVEN TO ABSTRACTION” My rating: B- (Available for streaming on Aug. 28)

84 minutes | No MPAA rating

Aside from guns and drugs, the world of fine arts may be the biggest unregulated industry on earth.
“Driven to Abstraction,” Daria Price’s documentary about the fall of the nation’s oldest continuously operating commercial art gallery, makes it pretty clear that for all the high-falutin’ airs of the art world, on the business end it’s a Wild West show as often as not run by riverboat gamblers and con artists.
In 2011 New York’s Knoedler Gallery — in operation since 1846 — abruptly closed.  Speculation soon turned to disbelief — the Knoedler’s operator, Ann Freedman, one of the most reputable dealers in the biz,  was being sued for having sold forgeries as genuine works  by Mark Rotko, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Richard Diebenkorn and Frank Stella, among others.
Turns out that for at least 20 years Freedman had been selling modern “masterpieces” ostensibly plucked from the vast private holdings of a European collector.  Oddly enough, there was no record of these particular paintings; Freedman said she had been told the collector bought them directly from the artists before they went on the market or were even photographed for posterity.
But there were  red flags.  Scientific analysis showed that in some instances the paint used  was not available until years after the death of the artists involved.  And then there’s the little issue of the Jackson Pollock painting in which the artist misspelled his own last name in signing the work.
“Driven to Abstraction” chronicles the saga of the Knoedler Gallery and the biggest scandal in the history of art in such labyrinthine detail that a flow chart would come in handy.
Freedman claimed that she was a victim here, too,  that the works in question were sold to her by  Glafira Rosales, operator of a small-time gallery on Long Island. Rosales claimed to be the agent of the mysterious European collector unloading these masterpieces. Freedman maintains she never doubted the paintings were genuine. Continue Reading »

Ethan Hawke as Nicola Tesla

“TESLA” My rating: C+ (Available On Demand on Aug. 21)

102 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The engineer and inventor Nicola Tesla (1856-1943) is one of history’s most fascinating characters…and one of the most elusive .

A scientific genius who pioneered alternating current electrical systems, he was a terrible businessman who died broke. He was also a hermit who avoided human intimacy and a lifelong virgin.

Moreover, even his biographers have found it hard to pin down the guy’s personality.  The man is  an engima.

When he has been portrayed on film — for instance by David Bowie in “The Prestige” (2006) and Nicholas Hoult in “The Current War” (2017) — he’s a supporting character.   The guy just wasn’t leading man material.

Which meant that Overland Park-born filmmaker Michael Almereyda had his work cut out for him in filming “Tesla,” a project which he has been dabbling with for more than 20 years.

Even with the tremendously skilled Ethan Hawke in the title role (Hawke starred in Almereyda’s modern-dress version of “Hamlet” back in 2000) it must be reported that there’s a hole in the middle of “Tesla” where the lead character should be.

Almereyda anticipated this obstacle, and has attempted to compensate with an expansive filmmaking language that throws curve after curve at his audience (and which, not coincidentally, can be achieved with a modest budget).

The resulting film delivers plenty of factual information about Tesla and his work, including the acknowledgement that more than a century ago he was doing stuff with electricity that scientists today cannot yet explain (like transmitting electrical current through the earth to light up a Colorado town many miles away).

The downside is that “Tesla” often plays more like a series of tableaus  than a coherent narrative.

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Wreckage of U.S. aircraft in wake of failed Iran hostage rescue

“DESERT ONE” My rating: B (In theaters and virtual cinemas Aug. 21)

107 minutes | No MPAA rating

A demoralizing bit of recent American history comes vividly to life in “Desert One,”  Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple’s richly detailed retelling of this country’s failed attempt in 1979 to rescue our citizens being held hostage by the new revolutionary Irani regime.

To say that Kopple has cast a wide net in researching this story is an understatement. Giving first-person testimony are not only Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale (then the U.S. president and vice-president) and members of the commando team that undertook the mission, but also Iranis who guarded the American prisoners, the hostages themselves, surviving family members of the men who died in the effort, and journalists like Ted Koppel who covered the event.

The actual raid doesn’t begin until nearly 40 minutes into the documentary. Kopple wisely spends much time explaining (or rather, having others explain…there’s no narration) the tortuous history of U.S.-Iran relations, our propping up of the dictatorial rule of the Shah of Iran and his long reign of terror waged against his country’s dissidents.

The revolt by Islamic fundamentalists is harrowingly recreated through vintage news footage and the testimony of the then-young Marine guarding the gate of the U.S. Embassy when the hordes descended upon it.

The life of the hostages is described in sometimes uncomfortable detail.  One American recalls having his hands cuffed in front of him for weeks at a time, which meant that after defecating he could not clean himself. And despite Irani claims that the prisoners were being treated humanely, there’s that notorious midnight episode in which prisoners were stripped to their underwear and led to a yard where they faced a mock firing squad. (Throughout the doc, Kopple employs animated sequences to depict scenes for which there is no archival footage.)

The hostage crisis stymied President Jimmy Carter, who was rebuffed in his efforts to negotiate with the Irani.  He reluctantly gave the OK to plan a rescue.  Specially skilled fighters from all areas of the military were chosen to train for the raid. Some may have been gung ho about the whole business; one fighter now says he never thought they could pull it off: “Too many moving parts.”

Indeed, this was a hugely ambitious and somewhat improbable effort.  A half dozen helicopters from American warships would fly into the Irani desert at night to meet two transport planes filled with fighters. They would then drive to Tehran, attack the prison, blow a hole in the wall to allow the hostages to escape, then regroup in a nearby sports stadium where U.S. ‘copters would lift them out.

Everything that could go wrong did go wrong.  Two choppers ran into a desert dust storm and returned to their ship.  The landing site was close to a rarely traveled road which — wouldn’t you know it? — was uncharacteristically busy that night.  The Americans soon found themselves babysitting (at gunpoint) a bus chartered by an extended Irani family (great testimony from a passenger who was only a child at the time).

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