House of Hummingbird (Beol-sae)


A conversation on the landing.

(2018) Drama (Well Go USAJi-Hu Park, Sae-byeok Kim, Seung-Yun Lee, In-gi Jeong, Sang-yeon,  Son, Su-Yeon Bak, Sae-yun Park, Yun-seo Jeong, Hye-in Seol. Directed by Bora Kim

 

The most recent Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards was a Korean film, which gives you an idea just how vital and thriving the film scene is there. Korean directors are unafraid to take chances with oddball humor, or unspectacular thematic material handled in a quiet, reverent manner.

Eun-hee (J-H Park) is 14 years old in 1994, and lives in Seoul with her baker father (I-g Jeong) and her distracted, depressed mother (Lee). Eun-hee has not been doing particularly well at school, being forced to go to “cram school” to get her language grades up. With her best friend Ji-Suk (S-y Park), she goes out to juvenile karaoke clubs, experiments with kissing and occasionally shoplifts. In the meantime, the World Cup dominates her father’s attention as does the bakery which is dangling on the precipice of failure. A North Korean dictator dies, leaving the people of Seoul to wonder if war is coming.

Her cram school tutor Young-jii (Kim) is the only adult that gets the desperately lonely Eun-hee. Betrayed by her friends, marginalized by her parents, ridiculed by her schoolmates and beaten by her older brother (Son) who is under tremendous pressure to pass his exams and get into college which would all but assure him of a decent job.

Eun-hee is used to not being taken seriously, but she has aspirations of being a cartoonist and she might not necessarily be as dumb as she’s made out to be. However, the challenges in her life grow exponentially as a mysterious growth behind her ear might be serious, requiring an operation that could leave her face partially paralyzed. On top of that, her relationship with Young-ii is growing more complicated and a family tragedy rocks her world. It’s nothing, however, to the tragedy that is fast approaching.

Although Bora Kim has been making short films for more than a decade, this is her first feature-length film and it has the taste of autobiography to it. The film has had an acclaimed Festival run, winning awards at both Tribeca and the Berlinale. The film deserves the accolades; this is a smart, affecting film that looks critically at Korea’s patriarchal culture and through Eun-hee tries to find a young girl’s place within it.

There is a realism here that is refreshing; the sexual exploration of Eun-hee isn’t particularly sweet but fumbling and awkward. She is a definite scholastic underachiever (to which I could relate) while at the same time having a definite goal in mind. Seoul, which at the time was undergoing a building spree and had become a world economic center is definitely a character in the film; clearly the director feels affection for it especially in the way her cinematographer Kook-hyun Kang shoots the urban scenes through almost a nostalgic haze.

Kim takes her time telling the story and isn’t afraid to meander a little bit, but that is anathema to American audiences who prefer their storytelling taut and efficient. Kim prefers to allow the story to unfold at its own pace although there are times that I did wish she’d get on with it. Americans, right? In any case, this is an impressive feature debut for a talent who seems destined to be one of the very best in a film scene that is crowded with talented young directors.

The film is currently available via virtual cinematic experience which benefits local art house cinemas and is being handled by the good folks at Kino-Lorber. Click on the link below to find the nearest theater benefiting from its run; for Floridians, theaters currently promoting the film include the Movies of Lake Worth and the Movies of Delray in Miami, the Corazon Cafe and Cinema in St. Augustine and the Tampa Theater here in Central Florida.

REASONS TO SEE: Ji-Hu Park is an engaging lead. A slice of life in the Korean working class.
REASONS TO AVOID: Attention-span challenged American audiences may find it long.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some profanity, sexual situations and domestic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A line about wanting to be a cartoonist in the letter from Eun-hee to her teacher Young-jii was taken directly from director Bora Kim’s adolescent diary.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/126/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Seoul Searching
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Cold Pursuit

How to Build a Girl


Johanna Morrigan contemplates a boring future.

(2019) Dramedy (IFCBeanie Feldstein, Alfie Allen, Paddy Considine, Emma Thompson, Sarah Solemani, Laurie Kynaston, Frank Dillane, Arinzé Kene, Gemma Arterton, Chris O’Dowd, Michael Sheen, Lucy Punch, Lily Allen, Alexei Sayle, Joanna Scanlon, Sharon Horgan, Patsy Ferran, Ziggy Heath, Bobby Schofield, Mel Giedroyc, Sue Perkins. Directed by Coky Giedroyc

 

When it comes right down to it, adolescence is a process in which we invent ourselves. The trouble is, we rarely know what it is we want to be. We often reach for the stars only to realize that our arms just aren’t that long. But as anybody who knows England will tell you, it’s almost impossible to reach the heights from Wolverhampton.

And it is from that dowdy suburban landscape that teen dreamer Johanna Morrigan (Feldstein) finds herself. Socially awkward but possessed of a talent for writing, she feels trapped in a place that doesn’t hold enough interest for her. An entry into a poetry contest ends up causing her even more humiliation and embarrassment than ever.

Her home life isn’t much better. She lives in a cramped household flat with her mother (Solemani) who suffers from post-partum depression after an unexpected birth of twins, her cheerful father (Considine) who dreams of the rock and roll stardom that he has thus far failed to find and her brother Krissi (Kynaston) who has the same frustrations she does and channels it into a fanzine. In her loneliness, she carries on conversations with photos of her heroes which she keeps on her wall; Sigmund Freud (Sheen), Maria von Trapp (Arterton), Sylvia Plath (Punch) and Elizabeth Taylor (L. Allen), among others.

Yes, it’s the 90s and Britpop is coming into its glory. Johanna manages to wrangle and interview with a Melody Maker-like British rock rag called D&ME but discovers when she travels to London that the somewhat snarky editorial staff thought that her submitted review of the soundtrack of Annie was a joke.

Utterly defeated, she ends up crying in a loo where a poster of Bjork (Ferrari) gives her a pep talk. Heartened, she storms back into the office and demands an opportunity. Taken aback, they assign her to review a Manic Street Preachers concert in Manchester.

She does okay and manages to convince them to give her an opportunity at a feature, an interview with up and coming rocker John Kite (A. Allen) whom she promptly falls head over heels over and he in turn opens up about his demons. Her piece, though, is a gushing, fawning puff piece that the snarky folks at D&ME don’t have any use for.

Stung, she resolves to be the biggest bitch she can possibly be and that turns out to be considerable. Reinventing herself as Dolly Wilde, a flame-haired, top hat-wearing libertine vixen who writes with poison pen and has as much casual sex as she can possibly get. But her persona begins to take over as she alienates everyone close to her, from John Kite whose trust she breaks, to her parents whom she humiliates by throwing in their face that she’s paying the rent. When she realizes that the people she’s trying to impress aren’t worth impressing, she is forced to re-examine who she is and who she wants to be.

Some have compared this to a distaff version of Almost Famous which isn’t too far off the mark; like that film, this story is based on writer Caitlin Moran’s own experiences as a teen rock critic for Melody Maker in the 90s. Make that very loosely based. There is an air of fantasy to this; the lifestyle depicted for the writers for the rag aren’t realistic; I can tell you as a not-so-teenaged rock critic in the 90s in the San Francisco Bay Area that all music critics are notoriously low-paid. That’s because there are far more people who want the job than there are jobs available; it’s the law of supply and demand.

Feldstein though takes a character who isn’t always lovable and makes her root-worthy. For the most part she has an endearing joie de vivre that permeates the film and makes it a pleasurable viewing. Even when she’s being a cast-iron jerk the audience knows that really isn’t Johanna.

There are literally dozens of cameos, including Emma Thompson as an encouraging editor late in the film to the ones mentioned earlier playing pictures on the wall. Particularly fun is Chris O’Dowd as a somewhat bewildered host of a local arts show.

\The soundtrack is full of a goodly amount of righteous period music, including tracks by Bikini Kill during a fun thrift store transformation sequence. Even if the story falls into cliché near the end, the good nature at the heart of the film coupled with the good will that Feldstein’s performance earns from the audience are enough to carry it through.

REASONS TO SEE: The film has a sweetness at its core. Feldstein is a star in the making.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally succumbs to clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as some teen sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alfie Allen, who plays a singer, is the younger brother of Lily Allen, an actual singer who has a role here as one of the Bronte sisters.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews; Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Almost Famous
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Ray & Liz


Liz is not someone that you want to cross.

(2018) Drama (Kimstim/1091) Ella Smith, Justin Salinger, Patrick Romer, Tony Way, Joshua Millard-Lloyd, Sam Gittins, Richard Ashton, James Eeles, James Hinton, Andrew Jefferson-Tierney, Deirdre Kelly, Michelle Bonnard, Jamie-Lee Beacher. Directed by Richard Billingham

 

It is very hard to look at our parents with any sort of objectivity. Often, we see them through rose-colored glasses as superhuman beings who can do no wrong, but more often we see them as absolute screw-ups who can do nothing right. We rarely see them as human beings.

Richard Billingham, an art photographer turned film director, has made his career by turning his lens on his family life. This movie is largely autobiographical, looking at his parents Liz (Smith) and Ray (Salinger), who live in Birmingham’s Black Country in Thatcher’s England. Ray is on the dole, having lost his job. The family gains additional income from taking in a lodger, Will (Gittins) in their dump of a home. Liz, deciding that young Rich needs shoes, troops off with him and Ray in tow to the shops, leaving the younger brother Jason in the care of Lol (Way), Ray’s brother who is developmentally challenged.

Liz – who apparently has had issues with Lol in the past – leaves with a stern warning not to get into the booze but when Will arrives home, he sees a golden opportunity and finds the liquor, bringing up a crate full from the cellar. He manages to get Lol drop dead drunk, then paints Jason’s face with boot polish and sticks a carving knife in his hand, then quickly leaves, returning to see the follow up which is a terrifying beating from Liz.

The neglect – leaving one’s child with a mentally challenged individual – proves to be a pattern as we follow the family as the boys age into their teenage years. The family now lives in “council housing” i.e. government subsidized apartments for us Yanks. Studious Richard has a chance to get out but young Jason (Millard-Lloyd) is getting involved with delinquent behavior. Ray has become a raging alcoholic, and Liz self-medicates, smoking like a chimney and doing jigsaw puzzles. After a terrifying night when Jason ends up spending a frigid night in a neighbor’s shed, the authorities are forced to step in.

The whole movie is framed with scenes of Ray in his later years (Romer), living in the bedroom of his council flat, the room infested with flies as Ray’s mate Sid (Ashton) delivering bottles of some sort of carbonated home brew. Ray continues to be deep in the clutches of alcoholism, but now he is utterly alone. He is separated from Liz, who comes around once in awhile to cadge money from him, but there is no love between them that’s apparent. The family has completely disintegrated.

There’s no way around it; this is a bleak film filled with unlovable characters trying to make do in an intolerable economic situation. Liz and Ray seem genial on the surface, but both are completely self-absorbed, caring only about having enough cigarettes, booze and whatever distractions they are into at the moment. Their kids barely get a second thought.

Billingham gives us endless close-ups of the flies in Ray’s room, of Ray’s aged and booze-ravaged face. He seems to take delight in showing Ray’s awful situation; one wonders if he is getting back at his parents for the neglect he clearly feels. I don’t doubt that Liz and Ray were far from ideal parents, but they don’t get a voice in this thing; it seems clear that they are both suffering from depression but that’s not the kind of thing that was diagnosed commonly 30 years ago, and it doesn’t feel like Billingham would have forgiven them for it in any case

Smith gives an unforgettable performance as Liz; she stands out in the cast. Salinger is kind of lost as the less assertive Ray, although the actor has had some impressive performances in his resume. Billingham, with a photographer’s eye, composes his shots artistically and the movie, as bleak as it is and as squalid as the settings often are, is a pleasure to watch from a purely technical point of view. Still, there is so much lingering on the flies and on the anger that one wonders if Billingham wouldn’t have benefited more from a therapist than from a feature film.

REASONS TO SEE: Ella Smith is an absolute force of nature.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too many extraneous shots of flies.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of profanity, some violence, plenty of smoking and drinking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Billingham is a photographer making his feature film directorial debut. His photographic essay Ray’s a Laugh is the basis for this film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Kanopy
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews, Metacritic: 81/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sorry We Missed You
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Possession of Hannah Grace

Sorry Angel (Plaire, aimer et courir vite)


The French sure do love their ménage a trois.

(2018) Drama (Strand) Vincent Lacoste, Pierre Deladonchamp, Denis Podalydės, Clėment Mėtayer, Adėle Wismes, Thomas Gonzalez, Quentin Thėbault, Tristan Farge, Sophie Letourneur, Marlėne Saldana, Luca Malinowski, Rio Vega, Loïc Mobihan, Mathilda Doucourė, Eric Vigner, Tibo Drouet, Jean-Frėdėric Lemoues, Teddy Rogaert, Thibaud Boursier, Adėle Csech. Directed by Christophe Honorė

Paris in 1993 was as ever beautiful, seductive and cosmopolitan. For the gay community, it was also the era of AIDS, a time when great numbers of that community fell victim to the disease. Jacques (Deladonchamp) is a successful playwright and a single father. He has been suffering from writer’s block in his career but also sort of in his life as well. His love life is in neutral, particularly since he’s contracted the disease himself. He continues to carry on essentially as before but he knows his time is short. While on a trip to Brittany for an arts festival, he meets Arthur (Lacoste) who is a 22-year-old film student who has become increasingly sexually indifferent to his girlfriend Nadine (Wismes). He is on the cusp of discovering his bisexuality and he falls deeply in love with Jacques when they have a chance encounter in a movie theater.

Jacques returns to Paris and his friend and neighbor Mathieu (Podalydės) who has become something of a confidante and who may harbor romantic feelings of his own for Jacques. For his own part, Jacques is reluctant to start something he knows he can’t finish but at the same time he is extremely drawn to Arthur and his youthful exuberance. Jacques wonders if he wants to spend what time he has left alone or with someone he loves.

Honorė is a distinctively French director whose films often have a bittersweet quality to them, although not to the degree here. This is a movie that seems to me to have come from a deep place inside the director. Unfortunately, films of that nature sometimes lead to overly long movies and this one is definitely guilty of that.

There are some moments of sheer joy (a dance in the apartment between Arthur, Mathieu and Jacques is a highlight) and moments of dizzying pathos. Lacoste does a really good job as Arthur and while Deladonchamp is a fine actor, his Jacques is prone at times to being a little more inwardly directed to be truly approachable. All in all, this is a good movie that I wish I could have connected with more deeply but the length and Jacques’ occasional remoteness prevented me from doing so.

REASONS TO SEE: It’s Love in the Time of Cholera for the AIDS generation.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie is way, way, WAY too long. At times the film gets pretentious.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and plenty of sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the course of the film, Arthur makes a big deal about being from Brittany while his two roommates are Parisians, Lacoste is actually from Paris while the actors playing the roommates are not.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews: Metacritic: 75/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Love in the Time of Cholera
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
Dead Pigs

Cecil


What do you mean most adults aren’t idiots?

(2019) Family (Vision) Sark Asadourian, Jason London, Christa Beth Campbell, Jenna von Oy, Aaron Munoz, Valerie Jane Parker, Avary Anderson, Susannah Devereaux, Graham Schneider, Maddie Kimrey, Mary Alfred Thoma, Reese Gould, Amiya Harris, Anna Grace White, Robert Gobelet, Jay Dee Walters, Noah Quarles, Kaiden Scott, Drake Light, Sarah Reynolds. Directed by Spencer Fritz

 

Most of us, growing up, have spent time watching movies aimed at kids our age at the time. Those movies were often over-the-top, always kid-centric and often portrayed the adults as essentially idiots whose sole purpose was to make our lives as kids miserable. These movies were mostly essentially meant to empower us, to give us the feeling that we could accomplish anything without the help of our parents. Mainly though we ended up learning that adults were not to be respected and that the only way to get things done properly was to do them ourselves.

The unfortunately named Cecil Stevens (Asadourian) has a lisp, which is not generally not a favorable condition when you’re in the fourth grade. Just saying his own name essentially paints a target on his back. Worse still his mom (von Oy) and dad (London) are having problems and have separated, forcing mom to take Cecil to his super hip grandma’s (Thoma) to live which means a new school. His new neighbor Abby (Campbell) who is also editor of the school newspaper tries to show her new friend the ropes but eventually she hits upon the solution – Cecil will just have to change his name.

Cecil is fine with that and even has a name in mind: Michael Jordan. Seeing as this is 1996, the new name brings Cecil great popularity and everyone wants to change their name to a celebrity. However, the unscrupulous principal (Walters) gets wind of the idea and decides that this is an ideal way to make the money to pay off the loan shark he owes money to, which has led him to cut school programs and funneling the money to the shark. When the newfound popularity goes to Cecil’s head, he is about to learn one of the great lessons of childhood – that actions have consequences.

Setting the movie in 1996, which was likely when the writer/director was experiencing the fourth grade himself, might have seemed a good idea at the time but in retrospect is a misstep; most of the age group this movie is clearly aimed at won’t have any memories of the nineties whatsoever. A more contemporary setting would have been a better idea.

The real problem here is that this is a movie that is severely dumbed down. There’s a whole lot of toilet humor and nearly every adult is an over-the-top caricature, the adult actors chewing scenery like living Cartoon Network characters. This makes the movie unwatchable for just about anyone who is older than seven or eight; even the fourth graders that inhabit this film would have rolled their eyes at this one.

Fortunately, the actors playing the lead kids – Asadourian and Campbell – acquit themselves surprisingly well. They get into their parts and even though they aren’t delivering naturalistic performances, the roles really don’t lend themselves to reality to begin with.

Parents may find the message to be a sound one but they likely won’t be willing to watch this one with their kids without some sort of distraction. Any kids movie which has the moms and dads whipping out the smart phone while the movie is playing is in big trouble.

REASONS TO GO: Asadourian and Campbell actually do a credible job.
REASONS TO STAY: Any viewer over the age of seven will end up being put off by this. The target audience won’t get the 90s references.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of rude humor, adult buffoonery and some mild bullying.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is loosely based on the director’s childhood.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/11/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harriet the Spy
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Book Club

Anthem of a Teenage Prohet


In a world where appearance is everything, posing is a natural extension of life.

(2018) Drama (SP Releasing) Cameron Monaghan, Grayson Gabriel, Peyton List, Juliette Lewis, Aaron Pearl, Richard de Klerk, Alex MacNicoll, Alex McKenna, Patti Allan, Beau Daniels, Sebastian Greaves, Joshua Close, Jasmine Sky Sarin, Danny Woodburn, Alex Lennarson, Malcolm Craig, Jaden Rain, Spencer List, Robert W. Perkins, Raj Lal. Directed by Robin Hays

 

Being a teenager is nothing resembling easy. Coping with a world whose rules shift almost daily and are confusing even on a good day coupled with raging hormones that make rational thought nearly impossible make it no wonder that teens are synonymous with angst. When you throw in some supernatural abilities, things get even more complicated.

Luke Hunter (Monaghan) is a fairly typical teen in a small Michigan town in the mid-90s. He gets from place to place via skateboard, hangs out with a group of friends who listen to rap but dress like grunge, smokes way too much, drinks when he can, gets stoned when he can and generally tries to figure out who he is and what he wants to do with his life.

One afternoon while hanging out with his friends including his boyhood friend Fang (Grayson) who likes to climb things and golden boy Stan (MacNicoll) who is the boyfriend of Faith (P.List) whom he has a fairly serious crush on, he has a vision. Stoned out of his mind, Luke blurts out that one of them is going to die the next day, hit by a truck with out of state plates. “Blood on the sidewalk,” he murmurs while everyone looks at him in amusement. Luke’s really baked isn’t he ha ha ha.

But nobody is laughing the next day when Luke’s prediction comes horribly true down to the smallest detail. The looks change from amusement to suspicion and downright fear. When a reporter overhears one of the incredulous teens blurt out that Luke had predicted the tragedy and later broadcasts it on the air, Luke’s life becomes something of a media circus.

Luke withdraws further into himself despite his supportive ex-hippie mom (Lewis) and somewhat clueless dad (Pearl). Faith, suffering through the loss of someone she cared about, is drawn to Luke who is going through the same thing. However, it’s not quite the same thing; Faith is not in the media’s eye as Luke is, nor is she an object of fascination in the same way Luke is. He doesn’t know what to do and ends up lashing out. Not to mention that he gets another vision about someone who is going to die.

Some may be drawn to this movie, which is based on a novel by Joanne Proulx, by the supernatural element but those folks are bound to be disappointed as that element is definitely played down. This is much more about surviving the teenage years than about dying during them. We are witnessing Luke’s emotional growth which isn’t always pretty. Luke is a complex character, one who is a talented artist, who adores his mother (as much as any teen boy would be willing to admit to) and pretty much just wants to be left alone to find his own way, also pretty much like all teen boys.

Monaghan is best known for playing a Joker-like character in the Fox Batman show Gotham but this is an entirely different performance here. Far from being manic, Luke is a bit of an introvert and Monaghan captures that personality well, from the distrust of others to the banter he has with those he does let inside. Given the diversity of performances in the two I’ve seen of him so far, I think that it isn’t being premature to say that this actor has enormous potential. Time will tell whether he can acquire the roles that will allow him to realize it. My one problem with him is that he tends to pose a little too much; it doesn’t look natural.

The writers and actors do a great job of capturing the swagger of boys on the cusp of becoming men. They think of themselves as invincible and their lack of life experiences don’t bother them – they revel in their inexperience in many ways. They are young and un-bloodied by life until the death of one of them catches them all up short.

While the swagger is perfectly depicted, the dialogue is less successful. It’s not that the dialogue isn’t intelligent and snappy – it is both those things – but it is not the way teen boys in the mid-1990s talked. It is more like the way boys in 2018 talk, from the rhythms of their speech to the expressions they use. Kids tend to use a lot of slang and jargon, which is a way of setting their own generation apart. You get none of that here.

While the film borrows its tone from a few disparate sources (one that I noticed was Final Destination minus the macabre deaths) other critics have name-checked the work of John Hughes and Gus van Sant. While the movie is a little bit on the long side, it is a very different teen movies. It doesn’t talk down to its intended audience and it tackles some fairly serious concepts. I don’t know how many teen boys will want to see this movie – this isn’t the kind of movie they typically choose to see – but this is a movie about them and one they would no doubt recognize. That may work against the film as its niche audience may somewhat ironically be disinclined to see it. Still, it is a worthwhile watch for those who want to understand teens a little better.

REASONS TO GO: The film nicely captures teenage boy swagger.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue sounds more like 21st century than mid-90s.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of profanity, teen drinking, smoking and drug use, some violence and dangerous behavior.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At the time of filming, Monaghan and List were dating.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Fandango Now, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/16/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Project Almanac
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
An Acceptable Loss

Rockaway


The young cast of Rockaway.

(2018) True Life Coming of Age Drama (Paladin/Gravitas) Keidrich Sallati, Maxwell Apple, James DiGiacomo, Tanner Flood, Colin Critchley, Harrison Wittmeyer, Nolan Lyons, Sophia Rose, Wass Stevens, Marjan Neshat, Frankie J. Alvarez, Wendall Lloyd, Nicholas J. Coleman, Jake Taylor, Luke Guldan, Drew Powell, Dan Puck, Christy Escobar, Samantha Cocozza. Directed by John J. Budion

 

NOTE: If you haven’t seen this movie yet, skip the rest of the review down to the last paragraph and just read that. Basically going through almost any element of the plot or evaluation of the various elements of the film may spoil your experience of it. If you’ve already seen it, read on…

There are plenty of coming of age dramas out there; films that depict a season or a year in the life of the lead character which becomes critical to shaping them into what they eventually become. Often these films are viewed largely through a sepia lens, the tones of summer and autumn becoming golden and sun-dappled with the warm refraction of memory. It is difficult not to compare those celluloid memories to your own.

Anthony (Sallati) and John (Apple) are a couple of kids growing up in a small town on Long Island long since immortalized by the Ramones but when this is set, 1994, the boys have bigger fish to fry. Their drunken stepfather (Stevens) beats on their long-suffering mom (Neshat) and on the boys themselves; when the younger John comes home with a slightly and easily mended shirt, dear old dad smacks the boy upside the head and not in a friendly, dad fashion but in a mean drunk fashion with the express intent to intimidate.

Still, there are things that the boys have to look forward to – their beloved New York Knicks are in the midst of an unlikely run into the NBA Finals against the heavily favored Houston Rockets. While Patrick Ewing was the ostensible star of the team, the player who had captured both of their hearts (especially John’s) and much of New York City as well was blue collar shooting guard John Starks.

They also have a plan to murder their stepfather, involving a broken light fixture, a whole lot of tennis balls, and a boiler. Whenever their stepfather is drunk and arguing (and smacking around) their mom which is nearly every night, Anthony soothes his plucky but timid little brother with tales of Mr. Doo, who is anthropomorphized poo and the stinkiest stool in town.  Anthony is extremely protective of his little brother; following the torn shirt incident, Anthony swears to John that their stepdad will never touch him again.

The two boys lean on each other exclusively and while Anthony is very affectionate with his mom, he has no illusions that she will ever get rid of the monster in her bedroom and knows he will have to do it if the family is to survive. However, into this horrifying situation comes a group of guys who become almost like family – the leader Billy (Wittmeyer), intelligent and thoughtful Brian (Flood), small tough-talking Dom (DiGiacomo) and motormouth Sal (Critchley) who clearly went to the Vinnie Barbarino School of Charm.

The boys will bond over bicycles, baseball games, the mystery of boobs and the improbable run of the Knicks and a deep friendship will result. It’s a bond that will last a lifetime, but they could have no way of knowing the type of curveball that will be thrown their way.

For some reason after reading the synopsis of the movie I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about seeing it but I was pleasantly surprised that this is actually a solid film. It’s not a movie that sheds any particularly novel light on domestic abuse, although the matter-of-fact tone it takes about it gives the viewer an idea of how a family in the grip of an unpredictable drunk bully suffers through uncertainty over just when he will erupt and what will trigger it. Walking on eggshells doesn’t even begin to describe it.

That said, the coming of age aspect of the movie has all the right feels and while the end of the movie becomes anti-climactic after a fashion (the big emotional scene that precedes it tends to drain the viewer) the story keeps the viewer largely engaged. There feels like lately a tendency to make movies run a bit longer than the story supports it; this one runs exactly as long as it needs to be.

They don’t really do a great job of re-creating the era; some of the cars parked at the side of the road and in parking lots and driveways were manufactured well after 1994 (imagine if in American Grafitti there were AMC Pacers and Chevy El Caminos parked at the sock hop. The amount of years that separated 1955 from 1973 is a little less than 1994 until 2018 – 18 years versus 24 years for the math-challenged.

The movie rests strongly on the shoulders of the juvenile actors; other than the mom and the stepdad there are almost no adults visible in the film. The problem with most juvenile actors is that they try to act and that’s what happens here; the performances come off as mainly stiff and forced. They would have benefited from a hand at the helm that would calm them down and elicit performances that feel less like performances. It doesn’t help that most of the characters are essentially one-dimensional. Even John, the stand-in for writer/director Budion, doesn’t have a ton of depth to him beyond his obsession with Starks, his devotion to his big brother and his terror of his father. Anthony comes off as nearly too good to be true; he is the emotional center of the movie without a doubt but even he sometimes feels more like an archetype than a real person.

I liked this movie a lot more than I expected to and that’s not easy to do. It snuck up on me and maybe that’s the best way to approach it. If you read all the way through the review to this point and haven’t seen the film yet (ignoring the advice I gave you at the very beginning), this is still a film worthy of seeing but the experience you have with it, having soaked in what I’ve already written about it, will be much less meaningful than if you followed my advice. If you skipped down to this paragraph, by all means stop what you’re doing and stream the movie on whichever service you prefer (see below) and then come back and re-read the review. See if you don’t agree.

REASONS TO GO: This is a coming of age movie with an edge and has all the feels you need.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the young actors try too hard and end up with performances that don’t feel true.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and domestic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Budion began his career as a special effects supervisor, working on such films as Beasts of No Nation and The Grand Hotel Budapest. This is his first feature as a director and the film is loosely based on events from his own childhood.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play,  iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/14/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Sandlot
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Anthem of a Teenage Prophet

Dede


The ageless Caucasus mountains dwarf the individuals who live there.

(2017) Drama (Corinth) Natia Vibliani, Nukri Khatchvani, George Babluani, Girshel Chelidze, Mose Khatchvani. Directed by Mariam Khatchvani

 

The Caucasus Mountains stand brooding in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, imposing and timeless. In the region of Svaneti, tradition is the backbone of life but that tradition but it is a region that is slowly fading into history. They have their own language but it is officially listed as a dying language (you can hear it spoken here). Director Mariam Khatchvani knows the region well – she grew up there.

Following the Georgian civil war of 1992, the remote village of Ushguli welcomes back their favorite son David (N. Khatchvani) who brings with him Gegi (Babluani) who saved David’s life in the war. Both of them have something to return to; David a fiancée and Gegi a mysterious woman whose name he does not know but whom he feels a special connection and, he’s sure, feels one with him. Little do they know that they are both after the same woman – Dina (Vibliani).

For Dina’s part, she has no love for David whatsoever – the marriage was arranged for her by her tradition-bound grandfather – but as much as she wants to break off the marriage, nobody else particularly wants to. Both families would lose face (particularly that of David) and the situation would undoubtedly lead to a blood feud between the two families. However fate intervenes and sends Dina on a journey in which she will attempt to exert her own independence, face tragedy, become the mother to a son and become the object of desire for three different men.

This made some waves on the European festival circuit and for good reason. Mariam Khatchvani, making her feature film debut, has crafted a beautiful movie of magnificent vistas and strong emotions, giving us a peek into a little-known culture and commenting on the patriarchal nature of her native land. That’s an awful lot to expect from a first film but she makes it work deftly and gracefully.

Some critics have compared this to A Handmaid’s Tale and while this isn’t quite as dystopian, there are certainly some revealing moments in regards to the attitudes towards women, often from other women. Traditions are strong in that part of the world and they govern nearly everything when it comes to love and relationships. Women “have no say,” as one patriarch grumbles, in whom she marries (even today, 25 years after this was set, women still cannot inherit from their husbands). It is permissible for a family to kidnap a woman off the street and take her to their home – and yes, that means they’re married. Once a man declares his intent to marry a woman, there’s no response from the woman necessary – they are betrothed whether she likes it or not. Generally though these things are arranged between the eldest males in the families..

While the traditions may seem backwards and even primitive to American sensibilities, they are very much a part of that part of the world. Life is hard, particularly during the harsh winters in the mountains and there are not a lot of modern conveniences. Most of the actors are non-professional locals and while Vibliani stands out as the best of the bunch, Babluani – the lone other professional – acquits himself well also. Vibliani has an angelic face and projects the fierce inner strength of Dina. Her beauty is both a curse and a gift in the mountain village as Dina goes through life as a prized possession, but a possession regardless. She is considered chattel like all women of the region and it is sobering to think that it has only been a bit over a century since we held the same attitudes in the West.

The cinematography is absolutely stunning with the mountains rendered as a silent Greek chorus to the events here. There is also plenty of singing and the singing is breathtaking and beautiful. Svaneti may as well be on another planet in many ways, but this movie helps us reflect that the attitudes toward women even in supposedly enlightened cultures are not that far removed from utter misogyny and domestic slavery. Given how women continue to be treated here in the west, there is nearly as long a way to go here as there is in Ushguli.

REASONS TO GO: The scenery and music is absolutely stunning. The film illustrates the hardship of life in that part of Georgia. Vibliani is beautiful and spirited.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a tiny bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is a Khatchvani family affair as the director cast her husband and son.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/29/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Suitable Girl
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Christmas Blood

See Know Evil


New York attitude personified.

(2018) Documentary (Made to Measure) Davide Sorrenti, Milla Jovovich, Jamie King, Francesa Sorrenti, Chris Brenner, Richard Paradiscio, Mario Sorrenti, Alex Burns, Long Nguyen, David Lipman, Vanina Sorrenti, Justin Salguero, Mutale Kanyanta, Lola Schnabel, Anthony Ray, Steve Sutton, Shaun Regreto, Havana Laffitte, Danielle Zainich, Jade Barreau, Victoria Bartlett.  Directed by Charlie Curran

Some may remember the “heroin chic” fashion photography of the 90s. The ones where Kate Moss, Jamie King and other painfully thin looking models were made to look sunken-eyed and despondent, often photographed in grimy, dingy places that could well double as shooting galleries, often with vacant stares and other facial expressions associated with heroin use.

One photographer who was known for pioneering this style was Davide Sorrenti. A street-tough New York City kid (by way of Italy where he was born), he ran with the SKE crew tagging, smoking joints and skateboarding. While he took great pains to look gangsta-tough, his image was often sabotaged by his sweet nature. Like his older brother Mario, he discovered photography was something he had a talent for as well as a love for.

Although he would eventually make a living as a fashion photographer, he himself preferred a documentary-style realism that would inform his style in his chosen vocation. Starting out taking candid pictures of his crew, he moved on to taking pictures of models and the pretty girls he seemed to attract like moths to a flame.

In fact, many of his friends from that era characterize him as a shining personality whose charm endeared him to nearly everyone he met but he had a secret; he had been born with beta thalassemia, a blood disease that is terminal. He wasn’t expected to make it out of infancy but he beat the odds and grew up to be a young man. In doing so, he went through his life knowing that his time was more limited than others and that what he wanted to do with his life he needed to do immediately. It gave him a joie de vivre that was at once attractive and dangerous.
His mother blames King, his girlfriend at the time, for his eventual heroin addiction. Heroin became an “in” drug largely due to the grunge movement in music but also from edgy and dark independent films like Trainspotting and My Own Private Idaho. Ad campaigns for brands like Calvin Klein and magazines like Ray Gun and Interview further seemed to glamorize the drug.

Davide eventually died at age 20 although not from a drug overdose – renal failure was the culprit. While autopsy results were unclear as to the role both his disease and his drug use played in his death, because he was such a high profile member of the style he was rightly or wrongly the poster child for the backlash against it. President Bill Clinton at the time spoke out against it and the fashion industry as a whole turned their backs on the style and went back to using more traditional models and photographic styles in promoting fashion once again.

Curran’s documentary doesn’t pull any punches; it doesn’t shy away from the drug use aspect of his life nor does it excuse it. While much of the focus is on Sorrenti’s fight against his disease and the toll it took on the young boy, it also celebrates his courage in overcoming it to a degree. There seems to be two schools of thought from those who knew him; that his success came in spite of his illness, and those who believed that his success came because of it. That Sorrenti went to bed every night hooked up to a transfuser in order to survive day to day tells you the kind of life he led. The movie is anything but hagiographic though – Davide is depicted as occasionally being grumpy or out of sorts and who an blame him.

The problem with the movie is it’s devotion to a 90’s-like style, with random clips and images bombarding the screen in between home movies of Davide and talking head interviews of those who knew him or of him. The practice becomes annoying and then irritating as it is used constantly throughout the movie. It detracts from the story unfolding in front of you and seems to contradict the anti-drug message that his mom Francesca seems to be trying to send.

Davide had a lot of swagger – he had to in order to get where he did – which might be off-putting to some. He also had a whole lot of New York street kid in him from the white rap fashion to the antipathy for authority. His life was all too short and was always intended to be but perhaps the knowledge of his mortality helped him blaze all the brighter. While rightly or wrongly his contributions to heroin chic have made him something of a controversial figure, if you look at the images carefully as a whole he really seemed to be more interested in capturing what was real rather than what was manufactured. It wasn’t always pretty but at least it had the virtue of being honest.

REASONS TO GO: The portrait of Sorrenti is well-balanced.
REASONS TO STAY: The use of random images is overdone and annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity as well as drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The Sorrenti family became known as “the Corleones of fashion photography” because so many of them became important in the industry.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Larger than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Trust Machine: The Story of Blockchain

Bel Canto


The diva, at rest before the storm, enjoys the company of an admirer.

(2018) Drama (Screen Media) Julianne Moore, Ken Watanabe, Sebastian Koch, Maria Mercedes Coroy, Christopher Lambert, Ryô Kase, Tenoch Huerta, Elsa Zylbestein, Olek Krupa, Thornbjørn Harr, Emmie Nagata, Elliud Kaufman, Ethan Simpson, Melissa Navia, Bobby Daniel Rodriguez, Gisela Chipe, Nico Bustamante, Gabo Augustine, Eddie Martinez, Phil Nee, Marisa Brau, Minerva Paz. Directed by Paul Weitz

 

Stressful situations can make us do things we wouldn’t normally do. Our perceptions can change and our emotions can guide us into decisions that upon hindsight are mind-blowing yet at the time seemed reasonable. That’s why hostages can sometimes fall in love with their captors.

In a Latin American country (unnamed in the film but based on actual events that took place in Peru in 1996) a Japanese industrialist named Katsumi Hosokawa (Watanabe) is being pressured by the government to finance a factory there. He is loathe to do it but allows them to throw a party for him in the home of the Vice-President (Kaufman) so long as they invite American soprano Roxanne Coss (Moore) to perform.

Hosokawa is a lifetime opera buff and his favorite opera star is Coss so he is essentially going to the party just to hear her (he later admits he has no intention of building a factory there). For her part, she’s only there for the money and icily instructs her agent over the phone to keep her gigs to Europe and the United States, as it turns out, with good reason.

No sooner has she sung her first aria when rebel commandos break into the house and take everyone hostage at gunpoint. Their aim was to take the President (Nee) hostage but he had stayed home in order to watch his favorite telenovela instead. The rebels aren’t about to go home empty-handed so a standoff ensues with their demand for the release of all political prisoners falling on deaf ears. Despite the best efforts of a Swiss negotiator (Koch) the negotiations go nowhere.

As the hostages bond with each other, eventually they begin to bond with their captors as well, notably Gen (Kase), the translator Hosokawa brought with him, with Carmen (Coroy), an illiterate guerrilla. In the meantime the esteem of Hosokawa for Coss has turned into something more romantic.

The performances here range from dazzling (Coroy as the conflicted rebel) to strong (Watanabe who seems incapable of giving anything else). Also outstanding is Huerta, Lambert (giving some brief comic relief) and Koch. This might be the most international cast in a movie this year. Moore plays against type but does a fine job. My one beef is that when she is lip-sinking her opera singing, her breathing isn’t the same way as a trained opera star breathes. It took me out of the movie a little bit but not so much that it was more than a minor annoyance.

The problem with the film is that it drags a bit during the last half  and starts turning into a soap opera – like a telenovela that the rebels are fond of; they even comment on it themselves which I suppose can be interpreted as fourth wall irony. However, the movie’s final denouement makes up for it. There is some inevitability to it but there is also a good deal of grace to it as well. Weitz has a pretty strong filmography going  and while this probably won’t be seen by nearly as many people who have seen his hits, this should be one he should be proud of. It’s a slam dunk to recommend this one.

REASONS TO GO: The acting top to bottom is extremely strong. The ending while inevitable is nonetheless powerful.
REASONS TO STAY: Towards the end the film gets a little soap opera-y.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of sex, violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Watanabe and Kase previously worked together on Letters from Iwo Jima.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/22/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The 39 Steps
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Dawn Wall