The Magnificent Meyersons


Just a walk in the park.

(2021) Drama (Argot) Kate Mulgrew, Richard Kind, Ian Kahn, Jackie Burns, Daniel Eric Gold, Shoshannah Stern, Barbara Barrie, Lauren Ridloff, Melissa Errico, Greg Keller, Neal Huff, Lilly Stein, Kate MacCluggage, Ajay Naidu, Terrence Gray, Talia Oppenheimer, Sarah Nealis, Andrew Hovelson, Allyson Morgan, Bryan Fitzgerald, Anna Dale Robinson, Athan Sporek, Henny Russell. Directed by Evan Oppenheimer

 

Through thick and thin, we rely on our family to provide support and stability. Even when the family is beset by traumatic circumstances, we cling to those that we can be certain still love us. It is as a life raft on a stormy sea.

Dr. Terri Meyerson (Mulgrew) is a pediatric oncologist and the matriarch of the Meyerson family. She sometimes wonders why on earth she took a job that sometimes entails telling parents that their child is about to die, but she manages to take her role with as much grace and dignity as she can muster, both of which were once stripped from her when her husband, Morty (Kind), deserted the family to deal with a mental illness. At the time, he flippantly told her “see you in a few days” but has been gone for decades.

She has her mother Celeste (Barrie), an acerbic sharp-tongued octogenarian who loves her grandkids (and great-grandkids) but that doesn’t keep her from taking jabs at them. And of course, Terri has her kids; Roland (Kahn), the eldest, a successful businessman and a bit of a hypochondriac when it comes to his daughter Stefania (T. Oppenheimer); Daphne (Burns), a publisher married to Alan (Keller) who has just terminated her pregnancy without consulting her husband, a source of contention between them; Susie (Stern), a deaf real-estate agent who is in a relationship with Tammy (Ridloff), and finally Daniel (Gold), who is studying to be a rabbi and often gets into theological discussions with Catholic priest Father Joe (Duff).

It seems to be an ordinary day in New York City, but events turn it into an extraordinary one; the first affects all New Yorkers (heck, it affects everyone) and the second, just the Meyersons. Both seem to be unlikely, but both are events that all the Meyersons will have to deal with – in each his or her own way.

This is a movie very much influenced by New York City. The Meyersons are well-educated, literate and thoughtful, one and all. They talk about meaningful things and ask deep questions of one another. They are, in short, searching for answers to imponderable questions and understand deep down that they aren’t likely to get any. The dialogue they speak reflects that literacy, and may at times be too smart for its own good – the Meyersons can come off as pretentious from time to time, which let’s face it can be true of an awful lot of New Yorkers, but that’s what comes from living in a city like New York. They at least come by it honestly.

The ensemble cast is, as is normally the case with ensembles, dominated by the more experienced actors. The most delightful is Barrie, who has already been nominated for nearly every major acting award at one time or another. She is the scene-stealer here, and you end up looking forward to her every appearance. Mulgrew does nearly as well in her most Janeway-like role since Star Trek: Voyager ended. Terri is a little more vulnerable than the starship captain, however, although she covers it with a patina of competency that comes from her profession. I would have liked to have seen a bit more of that side of her though. Kind also does well here, being genuinely cuddly when he needs to be and somewhat lost and befudled when he has to be. He doesn’t overdo the pathos, which lesser actors might have done.

The actors playing the kids get the lions share of the screen time though, and while they all submit strong performances, none really stand out the way the other three do. They are given a lot of fairly lofty dialogue, discussing their place in the universe, relationships with God, with each other, and from time to time, the open wound that was left by their father leaving the family.

And I wish they had stuck to that story. The first “event” I referred to earlier – the one that affects “everyone,” seems terribly out of place in the movie. I understand the reason that they chose to do it, but it flat-out doesn’t work. It ends up being a massive distraction and strays away from the more important themes here – specifically, the ability to reconcile when one is wounded by someone beyond forgiveness, and whether those who stray from the family can find their way back again. Those are subjects far more in tune with the tone of the movie and had writer/director Evan Oppenheimer opted to stick with just that, he would have had a terrific film on his hands. He still does, but not quite as terrific as it might have been.

REASONS TO SEE: Smart dialogue gives hints of deep conversations. Strong performances by most of the ensemble, with Barbara Barrie emerging from the pack.
REASONS TO AVOID: The midpoint plot twist was regrettable and unnecessary.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Mulgrew, who originated the role of Captain Kathryn Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager, will be reprising the role in the new children’s animated series Star Trek: Prodigy, debuting next month on Paramount Plus.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Royal Tenenbaums
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt)

Malignant


Sweet dreams.

(2021) Horror (New Line) Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hasson, George Young, Michole Briana White, Jean Louise Kelly, Susanna Thompson, Jake Abel, Jacqueline McKenzie, Christian Clemenson, Amir AboulEla, Mercedes Colon, Ingrid Bisu, Ruben Pla, Jon Lee Brody, Paula Marshall, Zoe Bell, Dan Ramos, Shaunte Johnson, Natallia Safran. Directed by James Wan

 

For those who love horror movies, James Wan is a name that is spoken with reverence. He is responsible for three of the most successful – and influential – franchises of modern horror; Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring. Of late his time has been spent branching out into big-budget action and superhero movies, but in between Aquaman installments he found time to return to the place where his heart really is.

Maddie (Wallis) has had a lot to deal with in her life. Adopted early on, she has put up with an abusive husband (Abel) and numerous miscarriages. After yet another unwarranted assault by her husband, she locks herself in her room and falls asleep. When she wakes up, he has been brutally murdered by someone with nearly superhuman strength. The detectives assigned to the case, the improbably-named Kekoa Shaw (Young) and the Wanda Sykes-channeling Regina Moss (White), are sympathetic but they are also dealing with some other murders in the Seattle area, including two retired doctors (McKenzie, Clemonson).

The trouble is that Maddie has been having vivid visions of the murders as they are happening. Her adopted sister Sydney (Hasson) is providing moral support, as well as physical care for the battered woman, but the more awful carnage that Maddie sees, the more she realizes that the killer – a spectral being calling himself Gabriel – has a deep and disturbing connection to her own past.

While it is good to see Wan back in the genre that he has been such an integral part of for decades, this isn’t his best work. The good news is that even the lesser entries in his filmography are still worth seeing. While Gabriel is unlikely to enter the pantheon of horror movie icons like Freddie Krueger, Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Chucky – or even Jigsaw – his supernatural strength and control of electricity (he communicates through electronic devices like radios, cell phones and loudspeakers) he is a formidable opponent. He doesn’t have the personality to be truly memorable, but the performances – when he makes his emergence in the latter half of the film is truly spectacular – but he suffices.

Wallis, who has worked in Wan’s universe in Annabelle, is also not quite memorable as Madison which is largely a fault of the writing. Faring better is Maddie Hasson as Sydney, providing occasional comic relief but just showing a bit more energy than Wallis. What’s truly memorable about the movie, though, are the technical aspects. There are some set pieces near the end that are as good as any that have been filmed for a horror movie, particularly one set in a holding cell. The gore is spectacularly done and effects, most of which are practical, well-integrated. Watching Madison’s reality melt into her vision is particularly nifty.

There are a fair number of odd plot choices, which is not uncommon for movies like this and which generally can be overlooked, but one thing that can’t is that the movie is paced a little too slowly for the first two thirds. Madison and Sydney spend a ton of time looking at case files and doing the kind of exposition that have people reaching for the fast-forward button. One thing that the script gets absolutely right is the reveal of Gabriel and who he is; it’s a knockout. Eliminate some of the research scenes and you would have a classic here. Even as is, this is an entertaining movie that is going to leave most horror buffs with a smile on their faces.

REASONS TO SEE: Terrific gore and special effects with some cringe-inducing body movements.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some may find the pace a bit too slow.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and lots of violence – much of it bloody and disturbing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Three separate people play various aspects of Gabriel; Ray Chase supplies the voice, (no spoiler) the body, and Marina Mazepa does the contortion effects.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (through October 10)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/22/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews; Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Basket Case
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Magnificent Meyersons

Confetti (2020)


For a mother trying to raise a special needs child in a strange land, even colors don’t bring joy.

(2020) Drama (Dada) Zhu Zhu, Amy Irving, Yanan Li, Harmonie He, George Christopher, Helen Slater, Robyn Payne, Meryl Jones Williams, Yi Liu, Nikolai Tsankov, DL Sams, Joe Holt, Ian Unterman, Kira Visser, Marissa McGowan, Tracy Ifeachor, Teresa Meza, Vivian Chiu, Tom Galantich, Amanda Chen, Zhuo Shunguo, Ruiyu Yang, Jia Chuanxi. Directed by Ann Hu

 

As parents, we want to see our children find the excellence in themselves. Sometimes, it’s more about finding the happiness within themselves. For a lot of kids, that means fitting in with the pack and not standing out too much (although so many teens complain that nobody understands the uniqueness in them). But some are most certainly NOT a part of the pack, and that can lead to difficulties.

Meimei (He) is a nine-year-old girl living with her two lower class parents Chen (Li) and Lan (Zhu), in a small Chinese city in 1989. Her mom, Lan, is the custodian at her school. Meimei is a sweet, adorable girl who is ostensibly happy and good-natured, although she is finding it difficult at school. The other children tease her mercilessly and the adult teachers have lost all patience with her. The reason? She can neither read nor write.

The American-born English teacher, Thomas (Christopher) figures out that the culprit is dyslexia Meimei sees letters as “confetti” but could retrain her brain to learn differently, if only she could get the right kind of education. Unfortunately, there isn’t that kind of education available in China at that time, with the emphasis on group achievement.

With Thomas’ help, Lan takes her daughter to New York City where they move in with a friend (maybe his mom?) of Thomas, wheelchair-bound writer Helen (Irving). She’s at first taken aback when she discovers that Lan speaks not a word of English and Meimei speaks it only somewhat. Helen is busy working on a book, has deadlines to meet and doesn’t have the time to hold the hands of two Chinese immigrants. Lan doesn’t even have a green card or work permit, so she gets a job at a garment factory being paid under the table.

But the school that they place Meimei in, which is supposedly inclusive of kids with learning disabilities, isn’t helping. If anything, Meimei is getting worse. She needs a private special needs school, an expensive one where Dr. Wurmer (Slater) is president. It seems to be an impossible dream, but with the feisty Helen championing them, maybe there’s a chance.

There is an air of improbability to the film that is sometimes hard to get past. Both Chen and Lan are unskilled laborers, definitely part of the poor class in China. How can she afford to move to New York? Problems that seem insurmountable are routinely overcome, or sometimes, just plain ignored.

The Chinese cast is strong; Zhu (whom some might remember from Cloud Atlas) shows fierce determination as the tiger mom who absolutely refuses to give up on her daughter, for good reason as is revealed later on in the film. Her chemistry with Li is natural and completely believable. And He? She’s absolutely charming, refreshingly so for an actor of her tender years. It is also nice to see actresses Amy Irving and Helen Slater, who had good runs in the Eighties and Nineties, onscreen again. Both respond with memorable performances.

While the movie does point out the obstacles that parents of children with severe dyslexia (and other learning disabilities) face not just in China but here, It also portrays a mother’s fierce determination to make the best life possible for her daughter in a world which is completely indifferent to her daughter’s present situation, let alone any future she might have. And while the plot might be something of a fantasy fulfillment, there is enough warmth here to overcome the raised eyebrows in all but the most jaded, crusty, curmudgeonly viewers. Which lets out most critics.

REASONS TO SEE: Harmonie He is about as adorable as it gets. Good to see Slater and Irving in a movie again.
REASONS TO AVOID: Stretches believability in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult issues.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is loosely based on Hu’s own experiences.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beautifully Broken
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Malignant

The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021)


Not having a blessed day.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Searchlight) Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield, Vincent D’Onofrio, Cherry Jones, Sam Jaeger, Fredric Lehne, Louis Cancelmi, Kimberly Hester Huffstetier, Randy Havens, Mark Wystrach, Joe Ando-Hirsch, Gabriel Olds, Coley Campany, Chandler Head, Michelle Brown Houston, Jay Huguley, Kevin J. O’Connor, Hailey Nicole Ralston. Directed by Michael Showalter

 

From time to time, a movie comes along in which a strong performance elevates it to another level. Those are good moments for a film critic. However, even more rarely, a movie comes along in which a strong performance is delivered but fails to elevate the movie beyond mediocrity. As a critic, that’s the kind of disappointment we can live without.

Tammy Faye Bakker (Chastain) grew up in International Falls, Minnesota. As a young child (Head) she was forbidden from going to church because she was a child from her mom’s (Jones) first marriage, which had ended in divorce. But her devoutness is never in question, especially after she takes her first communion wine.

Years later, while at North Central Bible College in Minneapolis, she meets the charismatic young Jim Bakker (Garfield) who has big dreams. Eventually she brings him home and introduces himas her new husband to her incredulous mom. He has a dream of being a travelling preacher, saving enough to establish a church of his own. But his own spending excesses get the better of him – he had bought a convertible well out of his price range, and when he fell behind on payments, awoke one morning in a hotel room to find that his car had been repossessed.

But he is rescued when it turns out that one of the people who had seen him preach (and Tammy Faye perform with puppets) thought he’d be a natural on Pat Robertson’s (Olds) Christian Broadcast Network. Jim and Tammy Faye were naturals for TV and so they were. Jim came up with a Christian-themed Tonight show called the 700 Club and eventually it became popular enough for Jim to found a network of his own, PTL (for Praise the Lord). Tammy Faye was thrilled because she could assist in her own way, singing gospel songs and using the puppets to preach.

Their rise was meteoric. Jim made some savvy business decisions, getting a satellite to broadcast his PTL Network programming whichc extended the reach of his ministry, but he also did some inexplicably dumb things – trying to build a Christian theme park, fo example, or worse yet taking pledge money for his ministry and using it for his own private funding. The relationship between Jim and Tammy Faye eventually soured; and their marriage disintegrated about the same time as Jim’s empire did, leaving them to wonder how it could have all gone so bad so fast.

Chastain is getting some early Oscar buzz for her performance as Tammy Faye and it is well-deserved. She truly inhabits the role and while the outrageous make-up and prosthetics (giving her the prominent cheeks that Tammy Faye possessed) is a bit of a distraction, well, that IS what the woman looked like, so it can’t exactly be ignored. Chastain reminds us that under all the late night talk show jokes (some of which were entirely cruel) there was a real human being under the false eyelashes and the layered-on-with-a-brick-trowel make-up, one who actually was kind and compassionate, something uncommon among televangelists who at the time were beginning to make political forays by attacking gays, progressives and feminists with an almost hysterical distrust which persists among evangelicals to this day.

Garfield also does a strong job as Jim Bakker, although let’s face it he’s completely overshadowed by his co-star. Bakker is a little bit more aloof in a lot of ways, but then again, the movie isn’t titled The Eyes of Jim Bakker. We get a sense of his growing frustration, the stress levels as his house of cards began to tumble around him, partially masterminded by a conniving Jerry Falwell (D’Onofrio) who does not come off kindly here.

In fact, I think the most disappointing thing is that I felt kind of flat watching the movie; here we have an incredible performance by an actress which should be inspiring and enjoyable, but the movie left me almost empty inside. Perhaps because living in the South as I do, I see where this televangelist thing led, and it wasn’t to a place that I’m personally comfortable with. Many of the people who loved Tammy Faye, or more to the point, her husband, are the people who support Donald Trump, and refuse to get vaccinated now. Sort of hard not to take that one personally.

It’s a good idea for a movie and it could have done with a little more insight into the principles. Even with the strong performances, what we wind up with are largely very much what you’d expect them to have been. I think the larger picture of where televangelism has led this country specifically is a point that needed to be made. So while this is entertaining, it isn’t as deep as it makes itself out to be.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong performances, particularly from Chastain and Garfield.
REASONS TO AVOID: Left me feeling a bit flat.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and scenes of drug abuse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chastain performs her own vocals on Tammy Faye’s songs.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/20/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews; Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fall From Grace
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Confetti (2021)

The Nowhere Inn


St. Vincent and Carrie Brownstein don’t always see eye-to-eye.

(2021) Musical Dramedy (IFC) St. Vincent (Annie Clark), Carrie Brownstein, Dakota Johnson, Michael Bofshever, John Aylward, Cass Bugge, Tema Sall, Erica Acevedo, Ezra Buzzington, Rya Kilstedt, Nancy Daly, Gabriela Flores, Toko Yasuda, Chris Aquillino, Drew Connick, Asha Dee, Robert Miano, Shae D’lyn, Linda Carola, Steve Rankin, David Shorr, Becky Poole, Rachel Rosenbloom, Kaitlin Huwe. Directed by Bill Benz

 

If you haven’t heard of the indie singer-songwriter St. Vincent, shame on you. She is one of the best in the world at what she does, and while she may not be the household name that, say, Arianna Grande is, she certainly has the talent to not only move the soul but to leave a mark on music itself.

This is presented as a documentary that went South and was never completed. What it actually is can be classified as a parody of rock documentaries that seamlessly meshes the old VH1 Behind the Music series with a heaping helping of farcical self-deprecation. Think of it as what This is Spinal Tap would have been like if directed by Wes Anderson.

Grammy-winning indie rock chanteuse St. Vincent (the stage name of Annie Clark, once a member of Sufjan Stevens’ touring band) is on tour for her 2017 album Masseducation. We first meet her in a stretch limo, motoring through the California desert with a driver (Buzzington) who has no idea who she is. We ae aware by that point that the movie we’re about to see (which was intended to be a concert movie) was never completed.

Long-time BFF Carrie Brownstein, guitarist for Sleater-Kinney but probably as well-known these days for co-creating Portlandia, had been Clark’s choice to make the movie. However, when she tries to differentiate between the striking, seductive onstage persona of St. Vincent and the offstage persona of Annie Clark, it turns out that Annie Clark is actually, well, pretty boring.

As attempts to make Clark look more interesting offstage continue to meet with resistance, eventually hands are thrown up and she decides to embrace her St. Vincent persona offstage, and we get to see some diva-esque behavior. Clark’s behavior becomes more bizarre and off-putting. She is cold and downright rude to Brownstein whose father (Bofshever) is undergoing chemo for cancer, and whose survival chances aren’t encouraging, although he is exceedingly proud of his daughter’s latest project which, considering her accomplishments, seems a little strange.

But then, that seems to be this movie’s calling card. It is decidedly meta – most of the roles are played by actors, and those playing themselves are playing fictional versions. At least, I hope so.

There are plenty of cringeworthy moments here, as Brownstein and Clark (who co-wrote the script) seem to be going for humor that is hellbent on making the viewer uncomfortable. This might well be their revenge for the effects on their lives that being in the spotlight have had. Or just a smartass commentary on what documentaries about the life tend to portray.

There are short snippets of St. Vincent performing in concert, or singing acoustic songs; certainly not enough to make her fans happy, but enough to entice non-fans to check out her catalogue – as well they should. She is a marvelous singer and songwriter, and she has some amazing songs on her resume. However, keep in mind that as much as this is a movie starring St. Vincent, this isn’t a movie about her, not in a real sense.

Rather, this is a movie about what St. Vincent could become if she were to allow it to happen. I imagine it’s not easy to restrain one’s ego when one exists in an industry that on the one hand tends to stroke the egos of its star performers while at the same time doing everything in its power to crush them. It’s an odd dichotomy that makes the reason that rock stars have a tendency to self-medicate somewhat understandable.

I will say that this movie isn’t for everybody. At times the film feels a little bit scattershot, like a bunch of scenes in search of a unifying theme. It is a little bit out there and requires that you be patient and wait for it to make its point and once it does, understand that it will leave the interpretation of that point (or those points) entirely up to you. Don’t expect to be spoon-fed, in other words. But speaking for myself only, I find movies like that to be more challenging, and more rewarding in the end. I’m betting that you will, too.

REASONS TO SEE: Different and interesting. Pokes fun at rock docs and music stardom in general.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit scattered in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: St. Vincent was at one time a member of the Polyphonic Spree (“Light and Day”).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTubeCRITICAL MASS: As of 9/19/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews; Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This is Spinal Tap
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Best Sellers


Nobody does glee like Michael Caine.

(2021) Dramedy (Screen Media) Aubrey Plaza, Michael Caine, Cary Elwes, Scott Speedman, Ellen Wong, Veronica Ferres, Victoria Sanchez, Elena Dunkelman, Frank Schorpion, Alexandra Petrachuk, Elizabeth Etienne, Charli Birdgenaw, Rachel Osborne, Frank Fiola, Christopher Hayes, Susan Almgren, Michelle Rambharose, Florence Situ. Directed by Lina Roessler

 

Like many industries in this digital age, the book publishing industry has changed radically over the past fifteen years. Like Hollywood, they rely heavily on blockbusters to pay the bills and not so much on literary gems. Besides, people don’t really read books so much anymore; they are more likely to read (if they read at all) on Kindle or some such device.

Lucy Stanbridge (Plaza) has inherited her father’s boutique publishing company which has fallen on hard times. Despite Lucy’s best efforts to modernize the country with young adult fantasy books, sales have been unspectacular and there are buyers sniffing around, smelling the desperation. Lucy needs a bestseller badly, but doesn’t have anyone on her roster that might deliver one anytime soon. And you know what they say – desperate times call for desperate measures.

That desperate measure is Harris Shaw (Caine), once a young lion of literature whose book Atomic Autumn was a massive cultural touchstone in the Seventies, but hasn’t had a word published since. Conveniently, he contractually owes the publishing house a book. So Lucy sets out with her doughty assistant Rachel (Wong) to wheedle a book out of the reclusive author, who is reclusive for a reason – he can’t stand people, and the feeling is pretty much mutual. However, his own financial situation has become precarious – you can only survive on royalties so long – and he reluctantly agrees to supply Lucy with a new book, The Future is X-Rated, with the stipend that not a word in the manuscript is to be edited. That triggers a clause in the contract that requires him to participate in a book tour for his new work.

Being a feisty curmudgeon, he does his level best to be a bad boy. Instead of reading his work, he reads Letters to Penthouse at his readings. He urinates on his own book and instigates chants of “Bull Shite!” which becomes a popular meme. However, as the young publisher discovers to her chagrin, viral videos and online memes do not translate into hardcover book sales – who knew? Turns out, nearly everybody else.

But both Lucy and Harris are wounded souls and while at first they are wary and somewhat annoyed with one another, they discover that they have much more in common than they at first thought. And that they need each other a lot more than they could have imagined.

The crusty, irascible literary icon is a hoary Hollywood cliché that has been done over and over again, but rarely better than how Caine does it here. This is one of the 88-year-old actor’s most compelling recent performances and he reminds us that he’s a two-time Oscar winner for a reason. Plaza makes a terrific foil and also reminds us that she is one of the most consistently high-quality actresses operating in movies over the past ten years. Putting both of them in the same movie was a casting coup.

It’s a shame that the movie shifts gear in the final act and goes the tear-jerking route which feels predictable and unearned. I don’t have an issue exploring the vulnerabilities of the characters – that’s what makes a movie like this interesting – but just the way in which it’s done, specifically the circumstances (I don’t want to give away what they are) is just highly disappointing overall. I wish that writer Anthony Grieco had trusted himself a bit more to come up with something a little less by-the-numbers – or the producers trusting him to do the same.

So what we end up with is a better-than-average movie that manages to overcome a whole mess o’ cliches with overall charm and a surfeit of strong performances, particularly from Caine and Plaza. This isn’t going to be Oscar bait by any means, but it’s a seriously entertaining movie that is likely to kick off the fall movie season with a satisfying bang particularly for older moviegoers and cinephiles alike.

REASONS TO SEE: Plaza and Caine are treasures. There is enough charm here to overcome its faults.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets pretty maudlin near the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and a scene of sex.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Roessler’s feature film directorial debut.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews; Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The End of the Tour
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Nowhere Inn

Eating Our Way to Extinction


Vegans will inherit the earth.

(2020) Documentary (Seine) Kate Winslet (narration), Sir Richard Branson, Tony Robbins, Otto Brockway, Joanne Kong, Joseph Poore, Peter Wadhams, Jeremy Rifkin, Bruce Friedrich, Tara Garnett, Roger Roberts, Oliver de Schurrer, Gerard Winterbern, Dr. Sylvia Eagle, Don Staniford, Liv Holmefjord, Udo Erasmus, Gemma Newman, Taryn Bishop. Directed by Ludo and Otto Brockway

 

Climate change is, without a doubt, one of the signature agenda items of our generation. It might surprise you, though, to learn that one of the leading contributors to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere come from what you might consider a harmless source: animal husbandry. The raising of animals for food creates an enormous amount of hydrocarbons but in order to keep all those animals fed, much of the crops that we grow go directly to them and not to hungry humans. It does seem somewhat bizarre.

This slick, well-meaning documentary charts how our lust for hamburgers and chicken nuggets are leading to an absolutely ruinous future. Oscar-winner Kate Winslet narrates, soberly ticking off points and captioning footage that is, to say the least, disturbing. The makers of the film claim that this movie will change the way you look at food, and it might very well do that.

Now, there are an awful lot of scientific talking heads, and that’s all well and good, but it can get a little bit dry, although the nifty animations help. What I found to be a major failing of the film, though, was that it seems to be presenting veganism as the only solution to the problem. That doesn’t take into account that humans have been raising animals for food for thousands of years and it is only recently that it’s become a problem. And while I admire the passion behind the project, I don’t appreciate being hammered over the head with a point of view that reminds me of an overzealous Christian missionary trying to convert me to Evangelical Christianity.

But it IS a problem, and we need to insist that our meat comes from healthier sources and not factory farms. Whenever possible, buy locally sourced meat and yes, that may be more expensive, but we should also be eating more vegetables anyway. I don’t think that the solution is for the entire planet to go vegan – that would bring on a whole slew of other problems. There is a tendency to think that because a problem is extreme that an extreme solution is required. What we need is to act in moderation. Eat less meat. Eat healthier meals. If we can stop consuming the massive amounts of beef, pork and chicken that we do, we can actually slow down climate change. But we also need to regulate Big Agriculture and their use of toxins like pesticides, growth hormones, dyes and preservatives. This movie, while on the strident side, gives us a good starting point in how to change our ways to make a difference for future generations.

The movie is playing tonight only as part of Fathom Events. Check your local listings to find the nearest theater playing it. Otherwise it will be appearing on most major streaming platforms later this fall.

REASONS TO SEE: Intelligently presented.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tends to hammer the viewer over the head with its points.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Brockway brothers also directed the official promo for Virgin Galactic.
CRITICAL MASS:As of 9/16/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fed Up
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
No Responders Left Behind

I Love Us


What’s not to love?

(2021) Crime (Vision) Katie Cassidy, Danny A. Abeckaser, Robert Davi, David James Elliott, Elya Baskin, Jackie Cruz, Greg Finley, Jasper Polish, Harlow Jane, James Madio, Courtney Mazza, Eliad Nachum, Christian George, Ray Bouderau, Diana Madison, George V. Andreakos, Frank Florio, Diana Davis. Directed by Danny A. Abeckaser

 

Love is mysterious. It can begin in the most unlikely of places. It can take us to the most unlikely of places. There is no telling who we’ll fall in love with. Sometimes we fall in love with people we never in a million years imagined that we could.

Career criminal Sammy (Abeckaser) robs jewelry stores. He’s good at it. He works for his father Harvey (Davi) who himself trod on the wrong side of the law before leaving the grunt work to his son. Sammy is paying off a gambling debt to his Uncle Ira (Baskin), a much more successful mobster. Harvey and Sammy dream of a big score that will allow them both to retire, but so far nothing has turned up that’s even remotely a possibility. After another successful but low-yield heist with his partner Richie (Madio), Sammy takes the bus home where he meets single mom Laura (Cassidy). While it would seem that Sammy and Laura at a glance would be totally mismatched, it’s essentially love at first sight.

The two end up getting married, much to the chagrin of Laura’s older daughter Rachel (Polish) who makes no secret of her disdain for Sammy, and the delight of her younger daughter Audrey (Jane). And for awhile, things seem to be going the way Sammy hoped, although he studiously keeps his real profession a secret from his new family. Then, the opportunity he and Harvey have been waiting for arrives, but it will take planning and efficiency to pull off. However, Sammy is hit by an unforeseen tragedy that changes his outlook on everything, and the crew that are planning the heist may not be as trustworthy as Sammy thought.

This is a combination of a family drama and a heist flick, and I would love to say that Abeckaser works the two together seamlessly, but I can’t. The two plotlines often work at cross-purposes and it doesn’t help that many of the plot points feel arbitrary and somewhat cliché, which is never a good feeling for a movie that is certainly trying to stand out as being unique. There are also an awful lot of moments that can only be classified as maudlin and manipulative, and they do leave you wanting to turn off the movie and move on to other things.

But you have to hand it to Abeckaser for pouring on the Brooklyn charm here; that particular borough of New York always has come off with a certain kind of magic and it’s very much in evidence here. Cassidy, best known as Laurel Lance/Black Canary in the CW comic book-based series Arrow (and perhaps less so for being the daughter of former pop star David Cassidy of the Partridge Family) is extremely memorable in her role here; her screen time may be too brief of necessity, but she does leave you wishing that there were more scenes with her in them. Abeckaser isn’t bad in the lead, but he isn’t as striking.

I do wish the film had taken a few more chances with the script; at times it felt like there was a bit too much plot. More simplicity would have suited the story better and the elimination of some sub-plots might well have made this a better film.

REASONS TO SEE: Oozing with Brooklyn charm.
REASONS TO AVOID: Contrived and maudlin.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Abeckaser and Elliiott previously appeared together in Lansky.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/15/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: They/Them/Us
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Eating Our Way to Extinction

Azor


Banking on Argentina.

(2021) Drama (MUBI) Fabrizio Rongione, Stéphanie Cléau, Elli Medeiros, Alexandre Trocki, Pablo Torre Nilson, Juan Pablo Geretto, Gilles Privat, Carmen Iriondo, Yvain Julliard, Juan Trench. Directed by Andreas Fontana

 

The veneer of gentility is often thin indeed, particularly in an atmosphere dominated by uncertainty and fear. In Argentina as the 20th century turned into its eighth decade, a brutal military junta had begun a period of repression in which thousands disappeared. Not all of these were from the poor classes; anyone who expressed disagreement with the regime might find themselves gone, even those from the aristocracy.

Swiss banker Yvan de Wiel (Rongione) has arrived in Buenos Aires along with his sophisticated wife Ines (Cléau). He’s a third-generation partner in a Swiss private bank – one only open to the super rich. They are there to reassure their clients that all is well after his partner Rene Keys disappears. Yvan travels from board rooms to opulent gardens, from oak-paneled studies to modern offices, meeting with Argentina’s elite.

Conversations rotate around small talk, rarely lingering long on Argentina’s political situation. People are disappearing and there is palpable fear underneath the genteel world of cocktails, formal dresses, palatial homes and luxury cars. As Yvan quietly investigates the disappearance of his more passionate partner (Yvan is low-key to the point of stupor), he comes more and more into the orbit of those near the junta who are behind the repression and brutality. Especially threatening is the Monsignor Tatosky (Nilson), who purrs “Parasites must be eradicated, even from the best families.” It chills one to the bone.

This is not the kind of movie that has a machine-gun pace; it’s a slow burn, so much so that the viewer might get a chill from time to time. Fontana keeps the tension high without resorting to anything overt; everything is done with subtle glances here, an oblique camera angle there, a pregnant silence over there. In fact, I don’t thin there are many films that have utilized silence as well as this one does; it is the things unsaid in this film that matter almost more than the things that are said.

He gets stellar performances from his two leads who are perfectly cast; Cléau eggs her husband on much like Lady Macbeth, only more cultured and urbane, picking out his suit so as to impress but not outshine. She advises him on matters of decorum and is anything but a conscience; more like a cattle prod, in that regard, urging him to do whatever is necessary to maintain the couple’s status and privilege. “Your father was right; your weakness makes you mediocre,” she observes at one point. It is her way of motivating him, because Yvan is just filled up with self-doubt enough not to trust in his own competence.

In some publications, there are comparisons for the final act with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and there is certainly some justification for that. It involves a river journey that…well, I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say is the heart of this film’s darkness. This is a movie chilling in ways that horror films are not, nor can they be. This is the banality of evil, on display in the latest Armani suits.

REASONS TO SEE: Elevates the tension nicely under the thin veneer of gentility. Fine performances throughout the ensemble cast. Captures a period in Argentine history not well-chronicled in the States.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be too slow of a burn for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is period smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fontana’s grandfather was a Swiss private banker; the film is loosely inspired by his experiences.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/14/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Missing
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
I Love Us

Language Lessons


Beauty and the beast.

(2021) Drama (Shout!) Mark Duplass, Natalie Morales, Desean Terry, Christine Quesada. Directed by Natalie Morales

 

Friendships can develop in unlikely places, and in unlikely ways. In this modern age of communication, we don’t even need to live in the same hemisphere to develop a deep and meaningful relationship with someone else. That can be a double-edged sword.

Cariño (Morales) is a Spanish teacher living in Costa Rica when she dials into a Zoom meeting with a new student. That turns out to be middle aged Adam (Duplass), who received 100 lessons in Spanish as a birthday gift from his husband Will (Terry). Adam and Will live in a rambling mansion in the Oakland hills and fairly drip with wealth and privilege. Cariño lives in an area of much natural beauty that she likes to show off to her students. As it turns out, Adam already speaks Spanish fairly fluently, but had mentioned offhandedly that he was rusty and needed an immersion course to get him back to fluency. Will pounced on that tidbit of information, as married partners will, and voila.

But the situation turns on a dime when Adam informs her of a personal tragedy. He is numb, bewildered and somewhat lost. Cariño, who barely knows him, is nevertheless kind, sympathetic and comforting and Adam begins to feel a real friendship with her.

As the lessons progress, we see that the two people from apparently disparate backgrounds begin to bond, and despite the reluctance of Cariño to let her walls down, the teacher and student become friends. But isn’t it true that some boundaries shouldn’t be crossed? Not in this case.

I think it’s safe to say that this movie is long on charm and short on production values; it’s essentially filmed as a series of Zoom calls and while the two stars are almost always onscreen together, they’re never physically in the same place until the very final scene. Even so, there’s a great deal of chemistry between the two. Both Morales and Duplass have a great deal of onscreen charm and charisma, and both utilize both of those traits to the hilt here. Duplass, in particular, delivers a performance that is often raw and emotional, although Morales gets a few juicy scenes of her own. However, the one thing that is the center of the film – the friendship between the two – is believable every second that it develops.

There is a bit of fantasy indulgence here – I wonder if the movie would have fared a little bit better had Adam been not so wealthy, although two years’ worth of weekly Spanish lessons might be an indulgence only a wealthy person would consider. It’s just that the ending felt a little contrived because of it, and might have been a bit more realistic had the writers not been given too easy of an out.

One thing I really liked about the movie is that you never know where it’s going next. Too often, movies follow familiar formulae and tread well-travelled trails. Not so this one; even though there are a few tropes here and there, they feel like they belong rather than they were inserted for convenience or as cinematic shorthand. You do have to work for this one a little bit, but in a pleasant way and that is certainly not often the case, even for a lot of independent films.

Most of the movie is in Spanish, although it is amusing to note that the subtitles also reflect Adam’s grammatical errors as well. And while the movie is about the beginnings of an unlikely friendship, there is also dealing with loss and disappointment, but in the grand tradition of movies dealing with grief, it ends up being a life-affirming experience.

Some might be suffering from Zoom fatigue and may not necessarily want to spend an hour and a half watching someone else’s Zoom conversation, but that would be a shame because this is a deeply emotional movie that delivers all the feels, something all of us can use lately. Also, as an additional bonus, it doesn’t mention COVID at all, although clearly the pandemic had a lot to do with the way this was filmed. While it’s playing exclusively in theaters at the moment, it will doubtlessly be available to stream soon. And although I find myself writing a closing sentence I never thought I’d ever use, you may want to wait for it to hit a streaming or VOD service – if ever a movie was meant to be seen on a laptop, it’s this one.

REASONS TO SEE: Duplass and Morales are both incredibly charming and deliver powerful performances. You never know where the movie is going. Like most films about loss, it’s very life-affirming.
REASONS TO AVOID: People might be a little burned out by communicating via Zoom.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief mild profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Morales’ first feature film as a director; she also directed several episodes of Duplass’ anthology TV series Room 104.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/13/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews; Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Italian for Beginners
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Azor