Movie Review ~ Before Midnight

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The Facts
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Synopsis: We meet Jesse and Celine nine years on in Greece. Almost two decades have passed since their first meeting on that train bound for Vienna.

Stars: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

Director: Richard Linklater

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Well here we are…20 years after Before Sunrise was released and 9 years after its sequel added a new chapter to the story of Jesse and Celine.  Though Before Sunrise ended with no real plans for a sequel, the final moments of Before Sunset could be seen as having more room to continue the story should stars Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, and director Richard Linklater (Bernie) want to return down the road.  Turns out that the supposed final chapter was a decade away…and worth the wait.

The two that first met on a train and spent a night in Vienna only to meet up again in Paris are now married with twin girls.  Vacationing in Greece, the film opens as Hawke (The Purge, Sinister) takes his young son from his first marriage to the airport, sending him home to NYC and his mother after a summer with his dad.  Waiting outside is Celine (Delpy) and the film really kicks into gear on the ride home from the airport in a masterful scene done in nearly one long take capturing a conversation between Jesse and Celine.

By now, Delpy and Hawke must have formed an invisible bond that allows dialogue to flow without any hesitation.  Though the dialogue and filming technique may suggest the script was improvised, it’s been said that the opposite was true.  Delpy, Hawke, and Linklater were strict with what they wrote and held each other accountable for the dialogue.  You’d never know it the way Delpy and Hawke deliver their lines…like two people having a conversation in the most naturalistic of styles.

Though I was worried that more secondary characters than ever are introduced in the first half of the film, I was pleased that their presence gave way to such focused dialogue on marriage, love, and relationships.  In different hands the words may have sounded grandiose and lugubrious, more interested in making people sound smart instead of honest…but it all works in a really majestic sort of way.

Unlike the awful This is 40, Before Midnight is able to show the complexities of marriage in a truthful and observant manner.  Jesse and Celine find themselves at a believable crossroads about their future and how Delpy, Hawke, and Linklater work their way toward a final painfully honest and brilliantly executed scene should be richly rewarded.  You rarely get the kind of satisfaction from an ongoing series as you do in Before Midnight.

I watched all three of the Before films in one sitting and I have to say…I highly recommend it.  It’s interesting that Hawke mentions in Before Sunrise what life may be like in 10, 20, years…and then to actually see the actors 10, 20 years later is remarkable.   A fitting conclusion to the story of Jesse and Celine…at least until the next film which I hope comes our way in another 10 years.

Movie Review ~ Before Sunset

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Nine years after Jesse and Celine first met, they encounter each other again on the French leg of Jesse’s book tour.

Stars: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

Director: Richard Linklater

Rated: R

Running Length: 80 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  I wanted to see Before Sunset when it was released in 2004 but being the completist that I am and not having seen Before Sunrise, I had to take a pass until I was caught up. The years went by and I never did get to see Before Sunrise until recently…and I was lucky to have this sequel on hand so I could go right from one movie to another.

When Before Sunrise was made I’m not sure any of the people involved even considered that a sequel might be in the cards so it was interesting that stars Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke (The Purge), and director Richard Linklater (Bernie) didn’t feel the story of Celine and Jesse was over and brought the two back together again, nine years later.

Moving the action from a night in Vienna to an afternoon in Paris, this installment finds Jesse (Hawke) on the final stop on his book tour where Celine (Delpy) finds him giving an interview in a bookstore.  His flight back to the US is leaving in a few hours but the two decide to go out for coffee which leads to another chat fest in and around various Paris locales.

Everyone involved has matured in the nine years since the first film was released.  Linklater grew as a filmmaker so he’s able to give the actors enough room to take on long interrupted takes which only serves to enhance to spontaneity of dialogue…that was in fact rigorously scripted and earned Hawke, Delpy, and Linklater an Oscar nomination for adapted screenplay.

The actors have come a long way as well, Delpy in particular.  Gone is the overly fussy actress from the first film and present is a more confident leading lady…perhaps because she’d mastered English more assuredly this time around.  Hawke is no stranger to long monologues or extended dialogue scenes given extensive stage experience.  While Hawke looks about 20 years older in this film, his easy going gift for gab again makes Delpy look even better.

A full 20 minutes shorter than the first film, there’s still a lot of dense material to be had…all of it there to serve the story and free from any flowery exposition that would have read false.  While Celine and Jesse work on writing a new chapter to their tale, audiences are once again swept away thanks to a collective understanding of the intricacies of relationships.  A wise, worthy to be seen film.

Movie Review ~ Before Sunrise

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A young man and woman meet on a train in Europe, and wind up spending one evening together in Vienna. Unfortunately, both know that this will probably be their only night together.

Stars: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

Director: Richard Linklater

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  I remember when Before Sunrise was released on VHS in 1995.  I was working at Mr. Movies and the one copy we received couldn’t stay on the shelves long enough for me to see what all the fuss was about.  When the film cooled off a bit I was able to take it home and give it a look-see because I was trying to expand my film knowledge outside of the latest action flick from Sylvester Stallone.

Well…I’d like to say I watched Richard Linklater’s film the whole way through but in reality I turned it off about ten minutes in.  I wasn’t engaged, I wasn’t moved, and I wasn’t able to appreciate the simplicity of the structure that Linklater (Bernie) and co-writer Kim Krizan had provided.  I’ve actually tried to watch the film several times over the years but still couldn’t quite get it to stick, stopping each attempt around the same time.

It took my urge to see every Oscar nominated film to get me to circle back to Before Sunrise after all these years.  With the latest installment (Before Midnight) being nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, I knew that to complete my task I’d need to man up and give Before Sunrise another fair shake…and this time it finally got its hooks into me.

While most audiences (like 1995 me) would rather stay home than see a film centered on two people walking around Vienna doing little more than talking about their lives, those that do take the leap will find great rewards.  What struck me so much about the film is that for as dialogue heavy as it is, it’s remarkably lithe and less heavy than you’d think.

Most of the credit has to go to stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke (Sinister) who are able to take Linklater and Krizan’s script and make it feel like they’re coming up with the words on the spot.  It’s well-known that Delpy and Hawke helped mold the script and especially Delpy was dissatisfied no credit was given to the actors for what they brought to the finished product.

Hawke is the one that really shines here, though, with Delpy at times feeling like she’s not entirely sure of the words that are coming out of her mouth.  As the two wander around town they meet a few characters that contribute to the plot but aren’t intrusive enough to feel shoe-horned in.  The conversations are generous and interesting with each actor having several moments to shine.

Between a little dip of energy near the end and the aforementioned habit of Delpy feeling a tad out of sorts it’s not a perfect film, however, and I think it runs just ever so slightly on the long side.  Still, it’s heads and tails above most romance films of that era that weren’t equitable in their doling out of smart dialogue to their stars.  Before Sunrise gives both actors their fair share of finely nuanced details, creating a charm hard to duplicate.

Movie Review ~ The Broken Circle Breakdown

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Elise and Didier fall in love at first sight, in spite of their differences. He talks, she listens. He’s a romantic atheist, she’s a religious realist. When their daughter becomes seriously ill, their love is put on trial.

Stars: Veerle Baetens, Johan Heldenbergh, Robby Cleiren, Geert Van Rampelberg

Director: Felix Van Groeningen

Rated: NR

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Dang it if the poster for The Broken Circle Breakdown didn’t already make the comparison between this Oscar nominated film from Belgium and 2010’s Blue Valentine.  Both films show the complexities of marriage and don’t shy away from allowing the hardships to take center stage, challenging the central husband and wife to figure a way to move forward.  In both, it’s not as important if they wind up staying together because by the end they’re now inextricably linked and no amount of time or space can tear that apart.

I’d also say that the film has a lot in common with 2006’s Once, another love story with music that brings two very different people together as they strive for harmony on and off stage.  With a score filed with aching bluegrass that is soul stirring and haunting, The Broken Circle Breakdown makes plenty of sweet music when the microphones are turned off too.

Even though it’s not told in chronological order, the love affair of tattoo shop owner Elise (Veerle Baetens) and musician Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) doesn’t need a running leap to get off the ground.  We meet them after they’re married, caring for their daughter who is sick with cancer.  Over the next two hours the film jumps back and forth between the past and present not exactly working toward ending at a time that meets in the middle.

It’s interesting that the movie was adapted by director Felix Van Groeningen from Heldenbergh’s own play because I don’t have the faintest idea of how the narrative of the stage work could have been translated into this fully realized, multi layered feature film.  However he did it, though, the end result is a moving achievement, aided by Baetens riveting performance.

Though it hits some off key notes in a misplaced series of rants that nearly destroy the magic, Van Groeningen gets things back on track fast enough that all is forgiven by the time the emotional finale creeps up on us.  With its right-on ear for song and its bold, honest performances from everyone involved…it’s not a huge shock this film made enough of an impression to land on Oscar’s shortlist.  Worth viewing…and then go out and nab a copy of the soundtrack.

Movie Review ~ The Croods

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The Facts
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Synopsis: After their cave is destroyed, a caveman family must trek through an unfamiliar fantastical world with the help of an inventive boy.

Stars: Nicolas Cage, Ryan Reynolds, Emma Stone, Catherine Keener, Clark Duke, Cloris Leachman

Director: Chris Sanders, Kirk DeMicco

Rated: PG

Running Length: 98 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  I decided against seeing The Croods in the theater because when it was released last March I didn’t feel like I could stomach another frenetic computer animated comedy…much less one that features a character voiced by Nicolas Cage (Valley Girl) at his most manic.  If the film hadn’t been nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, it’s highly likely I never would have seen this prehistoric family comedy…and that would have been my misfortune.

Surprisingly, this was a fast-paced but skillfully well balanced blend of comedy and adventure painted with a palette of bright colors and warm earth tones that ranks as one of the best animated films I’ve seen in recent years.  Though the plot and its developments are fairly familiar, they’re given a nice spit shine from screenwriters Chris Sanders, Kirk De Miccio, and Monty Python’s John Cleese.

Cage is the voice of a caveman daddy that is overprotective of his small clan, never letting his children out of his sight long enough for anything bad to happen to them though he’d just as soon his mother in law played by, who else, Cloris Leachman took a night walk all by herself.  With the ground shaking more often and the arrival of a boy (Ryan Reynolds, Turbo) that catches the eye of his there’s-gotta-be-something-better-than-this-cave daughter (Emma Stone, The Amazing Spider-Man) the family dynamic shifts just as the tectonic plates get moving.  Now the family that sticks together needs to dig in to survive and make it to higher ground.

Earning its PG rating for several scary sequences, this probably isn’t one to take very small children to but if your kid can handle it this is one you’ll probably find yourself responding positively to as well.  Even the adult humor doesn’t totally go over the heads of little ones, making it possible for tykes and adults to laugh at the same joke but for different reasons.

Overall, this was a pleasant surprise of a film and one that I’ve added to my collection for repeat viewings.  Now that computer generated films for families are becoming more standard and easy to produce (see the middling The Nut Job as an example) it’s nice to see the rare occurrence of a family friendly film that may not break new ground but manages to build a nice house on top of work that has come before it.

 

Movie Review ~ Cutie and the Boxer

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The Facts
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Synopsis: This candid New York love story explores the chaotic 40-year marriage of famed boxing painter Ushio Shinohara and his wife, Noriko. Anxious to shed her role as her overbearing husband’s assistant, Noriko finds an identity of her own.

Stars: Ushio Shinohara, Noriko Shinohara

Director: Zachary Heinzerling

Rated: R

Running Length: 82 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review:  At 82 minutes, Cutie and the Boxer feels like it barely scratches the surface of the symbiotic relationship between visual artists Ushio & Noriko Shinohara as it chronicles their life over the past 40 years.  On the other hand, for these 82 minutes the audience is tossed right into the simmering frying pan of two people that have achieved a unique rhythm allowing them to express themselves in their individual way.

I’m not sure I would have given the film its Oscar nomination for Best Documentary because I don’t feel it’s meaty enough to accomplish its goal.  Though I wasn’t enamored of the film as a whole, in part due to a general awkwardness in the way that director Zachary Heinzerling has assembled it, there were several dynamite chapters of this story that helped me stick with it.

Strangely, the film seems to find its shape when it’s not focused solely on Ushio and Noriko but instead when it steps back and allows others in.  When a curator from the Guggenheim stops by the Shinohara’s studio to watch Ushio work and look at options for a proposed exhibition of his art, there’s a fascinating exchange of ideas where each party tries to position themselves to get their way.  It made me more interested in seeing where the curator was going next rather than staying with the Shinohara’s as they roll up the canvases and turn out the lights.

Even more interesting is how the film captures Noriko’s desire to do something with her own art.  Drawing cartoons featuring the naked beauty of Cutie (a pig-tailed stand-in for Noriko), Noriko helps illustrate her inner feelings of wanting to be noticed and also provides Heinzerling a good way to help tell the story of how the two artists met in NYC four decades ago.

We also meet the Shinohara’s son that looks to be following in his father’s alcoholic ways but either the filmmaker couldn’t get more material on the young adult or out of respect for his subjects he kept that part of the story at a distance…either way it feels like self-editing that weakens his overall narrative.  You just feel like there’s an elephant in the room that no one is speaking of…though it feels like Noriko had something to say.

Art is subjective and I’m not sure I’d be a fan of either of the Shinohara’s work…but I think a better film is waiting to be made out of their story.

Movie Review ~ The Act of Killing

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A documentary which challenges former Indonesian death-squad leaders to reenact their mass-killings in whichever cinematic genres they wish, including classic Hollywood crime scenarios and lavish musical numbers.

Stars: Anwar Congo, Herman Koto, Syamsul Arifin

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer

Rated: NR

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Between 1965 and 1966 more than 500,000 Indonesian men, women, and children were killed by members of death squads tasked with clearing Indonesia of communists.  Men that were small time hoods or self-titled gangsters were given full authority to extort information from innocent people before dispatching them in various horrific methods.

These men have never been held accountable for their crimes against humanity so it’s pretty astounding at the chutzpah of filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer to invite these evil-doers to participate in The Act of Killing, a documentary which affords the leaders of the death squads the opportunity to reenact the murders they committed via various Hollywood tropes.  From gangster pics to fantasy epics to musicals, murder, reality, and cinema collide in a film that’s hard to watch but essential viewing at the same time.

This is one film I circled around for quite some time.  I couldn’t bring myself to see it in theaters or take a screening copy for a spin…I knew what was waiting for me and I recognized I had to be in the right frame of mind to take it all in.  So, with the Oscars coming up where this is likely to take home the award for Best Documentary Feature, I knew it was time to see it.

The experience of seeing the film early on a Sunday morning is one I won’t soon forget as the images it leaves behind and the feelings it stirred are not to be forgotten.  The brazen callousness of a swath of misogynistic men is enough to turn even the strongest of stomachs and when you couple it with graphic details of how they achieved their mass genocide it becomes nearly unbearable.

Still, Oppenheimer is unrelenting in pushing the limits of what the audience can stand.  It’s not that the film is graphic in a bloody sense but that it’s graphic in its depiction of man’s inhumanity to man.  Hearing men relate the stories of decapitations as easily as if discussing their last trip to an Applebee’s, as an audience member I kept looking desperately for remorse in the souls of these subjects…but there’s none to be found.

Well, almost.  The film’s most extraordinary scene comes near the end when Anwar Congo (who would be called colorful if it wasn’t known he alone killed over 1,000 people) finally seems to get what his actions have caused not only to the dead but to the friends and family that have gone on living.  It’s powerful stuff and though it doesn’t endear us to him in any way, it provides a moment where we can see a crack in a dark veneer.

Truly one of those films you have to be in the right mood to see, The Act of Killing is a one of a kind documentary that may very well deserve the Oscar this year.  Make sure to watch the entire credits to see just how many people worked on this film that chose to be listed as Anonymous.  Remember that these men responsible for so many deaths remain unpunished…and the fear of retribution for those that still live in Indonesia is great. Bravo to them for their contributions on this important piece of filmmaking.

Movie Review ~ The 2014 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Live Action

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Oscar Nominated Short Films…anyone that has ever done an office Oscar pool is familiar with these categories.  These are the nominees with names of films you’ve never heard of and if you’re like me you usually pick the one that sounds the most Oscar-y or the one with the craziest title.  For the past few years, the Academy has been packaging these films and presenting them in theaters or for download online to give audiences a chance to see these and maybe make more than a blind guess.

Below are my mini reviews of the five live action short film nominees for 2014.

Helium
A friendship between a hospital janitor and a terminally ill boy sets the stage for this short drama that’s high on emotion…and manipulation.  I’m a sucker for a tearjerker and didn’t mind Helium’s overt attempts to not just tug on our heartstrings but grip them so hard they nearly detach.  It helps that the film looks great and features strong performances from top to bottom.  Why are foreign child actors so much more believable than the ones we find in Hollywood films?  Tiny Pelle Falk Krusbæk is a charmer and the film is counting on that for the final moments to work.  I didn’t care much for the effects heavy finale which is cheap in both execution and in visuals…but up until then I was happily along for the ride.

The Voorman Problem
The only short film entirely in English, The Voorman Problem features two familiar faces in the lead roles.  Martin Freeman (The World’s End, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) is a psychiatrist called in to examine a prisoner (Tom Hollander, About Time) who claims to be a god.  Handsomely produced with that deft BBC design suggesting Freeman filmed this during his lunch hour from Sherlock, there’s not a lot to the film though it’s clever enough to keep you interested.  I’d like to see this one expanded a bit though I’m not sure it has the kind of tricks up its sleeve necessary to fill a full feature.

Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just before Losing Everything)
I rolled my eyes right before this one started once I saw the length (30 minutes) and that it was in French.  When I think of short films I make the mistake of having in mind something that runs around 15 minutes so I sunk a little lower in my chair as this began.  A half hour later not only was I sitting upright in my seat but was perched right on the edge of it as well.  I’m resisting giving too much away about this one and the less said about it the better – just  know that it was a wholly unexpected triumph of a film that created the kind of breathless tension major Hollywood films only dream of achieving.  The entire slate of nominees is worth watching for this one alone – and I can only hope this takes the prize on Oscar night.

Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me)
Two Spanish aid workers are detained by a cache of African soldiers, many of them not yet teenagers in this hard-hitting and tense drama.  Though it loses steam in an out of place bombs and guns detour and whenever it jumps forward in time, the film is successful when documenting the heinous activity committed by children brainwashed by adults into targeting the wrong enemy.  Strong performances abound in this one, especially Alejandra Lorente as she fights for her survival in some nightmarish incidents.

Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?)
After two tense films, this final comedic nominee came as a nice breath of fresh air thanks to its short running length and crackerjack pacing.  It goes to show that you can create just as lasting an impression with a film running less than 10 minutes as you can with one twice that long.  From Finland, this zany gem follows a family rushing to get ready for a weekend wedding and how their disorganization leads them astray.  Remember that opening of Four Weddings and a Funeral where characters run around like chickens with their heads cut off…this follows the same mold but finds new ways (and an unexpectedly excellent ending) to bring the laughs.

Movie Review ~ The 2014 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Documentary

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Oscar Nominated Short Films…anyone that has ever done an office Oscar pool is familiar with these categories.  These are the nominees with names of films you’ve never heard of and if you’re like me you usually pick the one that sounds the most Oscar-y or the one with the craziest title.  For the past few years, the Academy has been packaging these films and presenting them in theaters or for download online to give audiences a chance to see these and maybe make more than a blind guess.

Below are my mini reviews of the five documentary short film nominees for 2014.

The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life
A documentary that looks at the life of the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor, The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life may have a fascinating central character but sadly lacks the kind of narrative tenacity that her journey warrants.  109 year old Alice Herz Sommer’s (who passed away just a few weeks ago) survival tale may be extraordinary and inspiring but this documentary is not.  I was never quite sure what director Malcolm Clarke was going for because in 40 rather long minutes the focus shifts several times.  Adding in several other subjects with characters of their own makes it feel like Clarke either didn’t have enough material in Herz Sommer (highly unlikely) or just couldn’t settle on a point of view.  Though it may win points for sentimentality thanks to Herz Sommer’s genuine lust for life, the sum of its parts isn’t enough to make the kind of lasting impression intended.

Karama Has No Walls
Featuring first hand video of the 2011 uprising in Yemen, Karama Has No Walls feels more assembled than researched.  Though the video from two brave souls puts the audience front and center in a graphic, bloody war zone there never came a time when I felt a connection to the subject or understood the trajectory of what led to the senseless attacks on a mostly peaceful protest.  For the last decade there have been countless documentaries on the atrocities of war that have been selected for Oscar nomination by The Academy and at this point they are wearing a bit thin.  I look for documentaries that educate/illuminate and I’ll admit that war documentaries face an uphill battle with me.

Facing Fear
The weakest of the lot, Facing Fear comes across like a segment from a network news show like 48 Hours or Dateline.  When a former neo-Nazi meets a victim of one of his hate crimes merely by chance, the two have the opportunity to explore what brought them to this point in their lives.  Now, I don’t deny that there isn’t some meat to this story and perhaps in better hands it could have worked out to be an interesting exploration on the power of forgiveness.  The problem is that the two men aren’t good subjects, with interview segments that seem overly rehearsed it winds up robbing the audience of feeling the one emotion that documentaries should never shy away from: honesty.

CaveDigger
If I had to select my favorite entry of the five nominees it would be CaveDigger which follows eccentric artist Ra Paulette as he carves out extraordinary designs in the sandstone caves of New Mexico.  Director Jeffrey Karoff wisely lets Paulette drive the narrative without much intrusion so we feel like we’re getting an unfiltered look at his art and what compels him to keep pushing his projects further and further.  Interviews with Paulette’s friends and exasperated clients are humorous, revealing people that have a high opinion of his creativity even though they recognize there is a little bit of madness in the man.  However, it’s in sequences involving Paulette and his wife in their humble home that gives you a glimpse of what life is like at the end of the day for a passionate artist.

Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall
In 2013 Showtime rolled out an extraordinary series called Time of Death.  Though the limited series mainly followed the final months of a terminally ill mother of three, each episode also looked at the last days of a variety of others.  Watching Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall I couldn’t help but wonder if this would have fit in Time of Death better than standing on its own.  It’s not a spoiler to tell you that the film ends with Hall’s death but how we get there is a moving and mostly interesting look at a prison system that has made a space for convicts to receive hospice care from other prisoners and hospital staff.  Jack Hall isn’t the most sympathetic of subjects, which only serves to make the gentle care he receives from the convicted killers serving as hospice workers all the more impactful.