The Mentor (2020)


Art is occasionally confusion.

(2020) Dramedy (Indie Rights) Brandi Nicole Payne, Liz Sklar, Mike Bash, Michael James Kelly, Santiago Rosas, Julie Lockfield, Corey Jackson, Mary Ann Rodgers, Geeta Rai, Ed Berkeley, Robyn Grahn, Sarah Williams, David M. Sandoval Jr., Brian Moran, Colin Johnson, Mark Olsen, James Huston, Audrey Levan. Directed by Moez Solis

 

Making movies is nothing like Andy Hardy exclaiming “Let’s put on a show!” It’s a frustrating and often cutthroat process that rarely has anything to do with art and has everything to do with how much crap you’re willing to put up with in order to get your film made. You have to be a little crazy to want to break into the business.

But that’s just what Nilah Williams (Payne) wants to do. She’s come to California from Georgia to make it as a screenwriter but she hasn’t been able to get a foot in the door just yet. It’s not for a lack of trying, though but her persistence hasn’t paid off. By chance she literally bumps in to indie film darling Claire Adams (Sklar) who is something of an idol for young Nilah and the young wanna-be asks her if she would be willing to mentor her. Claire has no time for such nonsense but after Nilah literally pulls her out of the way of a speeding car and saves her life, Claire feels obligated to give her the benefit of her experience.

Claire is brutally honest about Nilah’s script, which was written using a manual. This doesn’t make Claire happy; no great movie, exclaims Claire, was ever written using a manual. To be different, to create something meaningful, you have to go beyond the book. Before Claire can give her much more than that, the two are kidnapped by a group of people wearing bird masks.

The kidnappers are apparently well-versed in cinema, and have an axe to grind with Claire concerning her behavior towards the writer of her latest film, in which all the dialogue was in German. They force Claire to get a loan from her mother (Rodgers) to help finance a film of their own, which their leader, Mr. Owl (Bash) is constantly on the phone with a big boss about. Escape seems unlikely and as the gang begins to self-destruct, it’s not at all certain this movie is going to have a happy ending for Nilah or Claire.

The film is delightfully off-kilter and Solis, who also wrote and co-produced the movie, has written some pretty impressive dialogue. Sadly, not all of the actors are up to making it sound natural. Some of the actors are on the stiff side and their timing in reciting their lines is just a little off. The exception is Sklar, a veteran stage actress, who gives the most emotive performance and tends to be the one you’ll remember most here, although Payne shows some promise as well. Most of the acting, though, is of film school project level.

Oddly, the movie actually gets better in terms of cohesiveness in the second half, as if the actors are getting used to working with each other and the interplay between them gets better and more honest. The best moments in the film are in the last 20 minutes, so if you’re willing to hang in there for a bit, you might find yourself rewarded.

There’s a satirical element to the film that for the most part I liked, although there is an awful lot of name-dropping which cinephiles might get a kick out of (Werner Herzog should get royalties). The various characters are a little bit arrogant about their art, and while I don’t think that’s true of filmmakers in general these days, I have known a few who are on the pretentious side. Still, I think it’s telling that the movie which is ostensibly about the film business with Claire on her way to take a meeting and Nilah attending a conference of producers and directors, was actually filmed in Oakland and Benicia, not noted as filmmaking hotbeds. That might be because Solis lives in the area and didn’t want to go to the expense of filming in L.A. or it might be a sly wink for those in the know. I would like to believe it’s the latter.

This isn’t for everyone and it does get kind of weird in places. However, I found that I liked it a lot more the day after I saw it than I did while I was watching it, which is an encouraging sign. Processing everything you see here may take some time to catch up. It’s newly available on Amazon so you might want to check this out if you’re up for something a little bit left field. We all need a little bizarre once in a while, no?

REASONS TO SEE: There’s a lot of attention to detail here.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little too much cinephile name-dropping.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Solis’ first narrative feature film; he has a narrative short (The Beat Down, 2013) and a documentary feature (The Games of These Divers, 2006) previously to his credit.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Tubi
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Player
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Fairytale

Hope Gap


She strolls while he snores by the seashore.

(2019) Drama (Roadside Attractions/Screen Media) Annette Bening, Bill Nighy, Josh O’Connor, Alysha Hart, Kadrolsha Ona Carole, Nicholas Burns, Rose Keegan, Ryan McKen, Nicholas Blane, Ninette Finch, Derren Litten, Sally Rogers, Steven Pacey, Joel MacCormack, Jason Lines, Finn Bennett, Anne Bryson, Tim Wildman, Susan Tune, Joe Citro, Dannielle Woodward. Directed by William Nicholson

 

Not every marriage is eternal. Some come to an end prematurely; some after a short amount of time as the couple discovers that marriage was a terrible idea for the two of them, while others occur after years of marriage.

Grace (Bening) and Edward (Nighy) are days away from their 29th anniversary. Outwardly, they seem as comfortable together as two old shoes, but there are cracks showing. Edward is distracted, almost shut down; he barely acknowledges Grace. She badgers him, trying to get some sort of reaction from him. She senses something is wrong, but can’t fathom what it is.

Edward manages to coax their adult son Jamie (O’Connor) to their seaside home in Sussex from London. However, he has an ulterior motive; he tells Jamie that he has fallen in love with another woman and is leaving Grace. At first, Jamie is dumbstruck; he can’t believe it. But eventually he is convinced that Edward means to go through with it. And so Edward does.

Grace still loves Edward and is sure that this is just a phase, and that he will soon come to his senses and come home, but it becomes apparent that Edward is gone for good. She gets alternately despondent, angry and bitter. Jamie is caught in the middle, serving as mediator and messenger, soon realizing that he is slowly developing the same malaise that overtook his father, while as he gets to see his mother as a person rather than just a parent, understands that he never really knew her at all.

Movies about divorce are not uncommon, and often prove to be fodder for some compelling films (i.e. Kramer vs. Kramer, An Unmarried Woman, last year’s Marriage Story). Some critics have complained that there isn’t a lot here that’s original, which I suppose has some merit until you realize that this is based on the divorce of writer/director Nicholson’s parents. I imagine it seemed terribly original to him.

What the rest of us are left with are a quest for insight; how would we handle this? Would we ever do something like this to our partner? Could someone who seemingly have the perfect marriage just watch it collapse around them? For this kind of movie to work it has to be relatable; it has to have a frame of reference that makes it compelling to the viewer. I don’t know that the insights raised here are going to resonate deeply with everyone.

That’s where some wonderful performances come in. In Bening and Nighy, we have two often underrated pros who are both about as good as anyone in the business. Nighy plays Edward as the very definition of “doddering,” he seems lost in his own home, a schoolteacher who is obsessed with historic events that happened over two centuries ago (Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow) and seems to be more in tune with the past than he is present.

I often forget how good Bening is until I see her latest film, and then I fall in love with her (as an actress) all over again. Despite a kind of dodgy British accent, she nonetheless nails her role here, giving Grace depth and edge. Often, she is almost intolerable to be around; she is confrontational, occasionally bitchy and uncompromising but it becomes clear that she is as lost in her own way as Edward is. Bening can convey more with a single glance than most actors can with pages of dialogue.

On top of the terrific performances there is some lovely cinematography of windswept beaches and the charming coastal village of Seaford where this was filmed. American audiences, though, may find it ponderous and slow-moving, the curse of the short-attention-span-afflicted Yank. In our defense, we watched too many music videos and video games growing up to accumulate the patience to, say, read a book, let alone watch a movie that requires some concentration as well as some commitment. But, sad for us Americans, the best films almost always require both.

REASONS TO SEE: Bening and Nighy are both masters of their craft.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow and ponderous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on and expanded upon Nicholson’s play The Retreat from Moscow which in turn is based on his parents’ own divorce.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews, Metacritic: 58/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 45 Years
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Mentor

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse


A gathering of Spiders.

(2018) Animated Feature (Columbia) Starring the voices of Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Lily Tomlin, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Luna Lauren Velez, Zoe Kravitz, John Mulaney, Kimiko Glenn, Nicolas Cage, Kathryn Hahn, Liev Schreiber, Chris Pine, Natalie Morales, Oscar Isaac, Jorma Taccone, Lake Bell. Directed by Bob Perischetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman

Spider-Man has been perhaps the most popular character in the history of Marvel Comics. So much so that the hero has progressed beyond Peter Parker; there are a number of iterations of the character in the comics; some serious, some not.

Miles Morales (Moore) is one of those characters. A young, African-American/Hispanic teen, he likes hanging out with his Uncle Aaron (Ali), and less so with his cop father (Henry). He’s a very smart kid, but not so interested in school and a little on the timid side. When he’s bitten by a radioactive spider, he gets the powers of Spider-Man. He relies on the comic books to kind of guide him through.

But then the Kingpin (Schreiber), a corpulent villain, opens up gateways to a multitude of parallel universes, threatening all of them. Spider-men from all around the multiverse begin to flood in, including a tired and nearly broken Peter Parker (Johnson), an iteration in which Gwen Stacy (Steinfeld) becomes Spider-Gwen, a black and white character from the 30s called Spider-Noir (Cage), a porcine cartoon pig named Spider-Ham (Mulaney) and a sprightly teen from the future named Peni Parker (Glenn). Together they will have to face down against the Kingpin and his scientific advisor Doc Octopus (Hahn) if they are to save the multi-verse.

Visually, this is a striking film that is meant to look more like a comic book than conventional animated features. It is certainly meant to appeal to Spider-Fans, with lots of little in-jokes and Easter Eggs for those who follow the character in the comics, but even for those unfamiliar with the various Spider-Man characters, there is some clever dialogue to keep the story moving, even though at just a hair under two hours long it might be too much for the attention-challenged. Still, this was the Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature at the 2019 Academy Awards and quite honestly, it deserved to be.

REASONS TO SEE: Wonderful animation. Plenty of Easter Eggs for fans. Clever dialogue.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some cartoon violence, mild profanity and thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, the original creators of the Spider-Man comic, passed away during production of the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, FlixFling, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews, Metacritic: 87/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Incredibles
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Hope Gap