“A Fistful of Dynamite” is Sergio Leone’s strangest and most personal Western

Duck-You-Sucker-1-1200x675I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the TV listings. At 2:05 a.m., TBS was airing a movie called “A Fistful of Dynamite,” a Sergio Leone Western I had never heard of. When Clint Eastwood Week would come around every six months on Denver’s local UHF channel I would dutifully watch all three Man With No Name movies, and I had later discovered the epic “Once Upon a Time in the West.”

But “A Fistful of Dynamite”? What was that?

I wasn’t sure what to make of the movie when I first came across it almost 30 years ago (and, given the start time, probably didn’t make it that far into before nodding off). Rod Steiger as a sort of Tuco knockoff, chewing up the scenery with glee. James Coburn with a soft brogue as an ex-IRA bomber looking to ply his trade in the Mexican Revolution. The tone was jaunty, yet melancholy at the same time, perhaps the slowest paced film that also features huge explosions.

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Netflix Movie of the Week: A teenager wrestles with her demons in ‘First Match’

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“Netflix Movie of the Week” is an occasional feature that highlights a worthy original film that has premiered on the streaming site. Netflix plans to release a whopping 80 movies in 2018, and a lot of them don’t get much of a promotional push and/or are hard to find on the site. “Movie of the Week” hopes to help rectify that.

A movie critic recently suggested that, aside from Oscar contenders like “Mudbound,” most Netflix original movies are intended to be merely okay, content to be playing in the background while we’re playing HQ Trivia or doing something else.

That won’t be possible with “First Match.”

Writer-director Olivia Newman’s powerful coming-of-age drama had me in a tight hold within the first few minutes and refused to let go, thanks to Newman’s sensitive and authentic screenplay, some thrilling sequences, and a breakout star performance by Elvire Emanuelle as Monique, a Brooklyn teenager.

The film, which premiered Friday, March 30, opens with a lyrical shot of girls’ clothes, pink and white, fluttering in the air as if they were flying. But the film quickly comes crashing down to the earth – the clothes are being thrown out the window by Monique’s caretaker, who accuses her of sleeping with her boyfriend. (As it happens, she’s right.)

The caretaker is the latest in a series of foster homes and crash pads that have made up Monique’s life over the last few years. On the street, she dresses confidently and beats down anyone who dares to cross her. But, thanks to Emanuelle’s layered and empathetic performance, we can see that this is a role she’s learning how to play, not her authentic self.

Monique hits rock bottom when she sees a man on the street and realizes it’s her ex-con father Darrell (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who has been out of prison for a while and didn’t bother to try and find her. She idolized her father, a former high school wrestling star who taught her how to wrestle when she was a girl, and still keeps his old notebook full of dreams among her possessions, like a talisman.

In attempt to win her way back into Darrell’s good graces, Monique tries out for her high school’s all-boy wrestling team, and is good enough to make the cut. There’s some resistance among the boys, but the coach (the terrific Colman Domingo) is nurturing and sympathetic, the sort of role model who can say something like “There’s no such thing as losing. There’s only winning and learning” and mean it.

Monique does a lot of winning and a lot of learning in “First Match.” The wrestling scenes shot by Ashley Connor are exciting and intimate, the camera pulled in so tight on the two combatants that some cameraman must have been accidentally taken to the mat at some point during production.

But Newman backgrounds the sports movie element of the film in favor of a character study of Monique and a search for some kind of home, be it with her father or with a team. The choice is not easy – we see Monique’s happiness as Darrell starts coming to her matches and coaching her again. But Darrell may not be invested in Monique so much as seeing the reflection of his own faded glory in the ring, which can lead them both into trouble.

Emanuelle is so good at Monique – tough, broken and surprisingly funny at times (when an opponent sees he’s going to fight a girl, and asks “Is this even allowed?”, Monique snaps back “Are you even allowed?”) “First Match” doesn’t seem to be getting the promotional push from Netflix that some of its bigger movies are getting, but it’s well worth seeking out.

Beloit International Film Festival: “Virginia Minnesota” is an engaging comedy-drama from next door

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Take a Wendigo, a wisecracking robot and a few old secrets, and you might just have the makings of a superior comedy-drama.

Or Superior comedy-drama.

“Virginia Minnesota,” which plays Saturday at the Beloit International Film Festival (its second-ever screening after premiering at Cinequest earlier in the week) is an engaging movie from writer-director Daniel Stine that takes place in the title town, of course, as well as on the shores of Lake Superior in Grand Marais. A more welcoming invitation for the region is hard to imagine being filmed.

Lyle (Rachel Hendrix) is a travel blogger who tours the country with an unlikely companion, a “robot” (really just a rolling suitcase with a Siri-type device attached). But her travels are taking her back to Minnesota, to the reform school she was once placed in as a girl.

The woman who ran the home has died, and Lyle and several of her classmates have returned home for the reading of the will and to reconnect. (Stine has a small role as the woman’s son.) The visit stirs up memories, not all of them pleasant. Honestly, the repartee between the women is so engaging that I would have been happy to just keep the movie there and let the wine flow.

But one woman is absent – Addison (Aurora Perrineau), the wild child of the bunch, a free spirit and loose cannon who hops from tourist job to tourist job. Lyle is sent to go fetch her, and as the two old friends take a meandering road trip back, dig deeper into the buried secrets that have kept them apart since childhood. The journey gets progressively more and more zany, including an apparent run-in with a Wendigo (although Addison’s mother may be more ferocious).

Tone is a tricky thing to manage, and “Virginia Minnesota” sometimes swerves over the lines. Sometimes the drama veers into sentimentality and pathos. Sometimes the jokes feel too silly and sitcommy for such a character-driven film. (On the other hand, the robot, voiced by Aurora’s father, “Lost” actor Harold Perrineau, is the silliest running joke of all, but still had me chuckling throughout.)

But the chemistry between the female-led cast is so strong that it carries the film over any narrative bumps. The film also has unusually tight and sharp editing for such a low-budget indie, the shots capturing the idiosyncratic beauty of the region and giving the film a snappy rhythm.

“Virginia Minnesota” has its premiere at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Beloit International Film Festival with an encore screening at 5 p.m. Sunday. For locations, tickets, and other information about the festival, visit beloitfilmfest.org.

“In the mixture, there is beauty”: ‘Red Trees’ is an evocative tale of survival and migration

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Alfred Willer was extraordinarily lucky. But, in the context of the Holocaust, “extraordinarily lucky” still means living with almost unimaginable loss.

Marina Willer’s impressionistic documentary “Red Trees,” now out on Blu-Ray from Cohen Media Group, aims to tell the story of her father and her family’s Holocaust story in a highly unorthodox way. Its visual daring sets it apart from other documentaries about the Holocaust, and justifiably so, since it’s a very unusual story.

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Vice Principal Vernon and Carl the Janitor, the sixth and seventh members of “The Breakfast Club”

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Watching the new Criterion Collection edition of John Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club,” I was struck by something I had never noticed before. The opening credits list all the main actors in the film in alphabetical order, starting with Emilio Estevez as jock Andrew and ending with Ally Sheedy as “weird” kid Allison.

But there are seven names listed, not five. In between are Paul Gleason, who plays vice principal Richard Vernon, and John Kapelos, who played Carl the janitor. That seemed weird to me – “The Breakfast Club” is those five young actors, made iconic as the avatars of ‘80s teens. You don’t see Vernon or Carl peeking in on the movie posters – why would they be billed at the same level as Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson or Anthony Michael Hall?

Rewatching the film as a middle-aged man, it’s perhaps natural that I saw those two adult characters differently – or, indeed, I saw them at all. When I saw the film in 1985, the two adults just seemed to hover in the background, indistinct. Now I see their importance to “The Breakfast Club.”

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Terry Gilliam gyres and gimbles through his 1977 debut “Jabberwocky”

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As Hollywood desperately tries to find more and more properties to turn into movies (Board games! Apps! Emojis!) it’s surprising they don’t buy the rights to more poems to turn into blockbusters. How about a rip-roaring “Ozymandias” about a team of adventurers trying to find the “two vast and trunkless legs of stone?” Or Russell Crowe as the “Ancient Mariner,” beset on stormy seas by a giant CGI albatross?

Terry Gilliam beat them all to the punch with his first film as a director, a very loose – indeed, pretty much entirely unraveled – adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” The 1977 film was just released this past week on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.

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Shout! Factory saves the best for last (and the last for last) with “Mystery Science Theater 3000 Vol. XXXIX”

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It’s fitting that, as we all settle in to celebrate Turkey Day, Shout! Factory has saved the best for last when it comes to its “Mystery Science Theater 3000” DVD sets. And also saved the last for last.

The new “Vol. XXXIX,” which came out this week, is the last scheduled of the four-disc sets to be released by Shout! Factory. They’ve now put all of the original “MST3K” episodes they have the rights to out on disc, ending with this set.

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