Ilo Ilo


Everybody ought to have a maid.

Everybody ought to have a maid.

(2013) Drama (Film Movement) Koh Jia Ler, Angeli Bayani, Tian Wen Chen, Yann Yann Yeo, Jo Kukathas. Directed by Anthony Chen

Offshoring

Two parents working is an economic reality that is true just about everywhere; it is not a matter of preference but necessity.

Jiale (Ler) is a young boy whose parents both work. His father, Teck (Chen) is a salesman whose product proves to be woefully inferior. That’s never a good situation to be in for any sort of salesman. His mother Hwee Leng (Yeo) who is substantially pregnant, works as an administrator for a business that is laying off employees at a frightening clip. You see, it’s 1997 and the Asian economic crisis has swept into Singapore like a monsoon followed by a tsunami.

As Jiale begins acting out in school, Hwee Leng, called to the principal’s office for what is likely not the first time, realizes that she needs help. She prevails upon Teck to hire a maid. That made is Teresa (Bayani) from the Philippines who left her son back home in order to earn money. However, she is not just to be a maid – she is also to be something of a nanny to Jiale.

At first, Jiale is furious at the intrusion. He finds ways to humiliate and torture Teresa that might have worked had Teresa been as timid inside as she was deferent outside. However she has a surprising core of steel and Jiale is eventually put to heel. In fact, the more time Teresa and Jiale spend together, the closer their bond becomes which doesn’t sit too well with Hwee Leng.

Both Teck and Hwee Leng have a lot on their minds. As Hwee Leng’s pregnancy progresses, she relies more and more on Teresa which bothers her quite a bit. Already with a bit of a patrician attitude to begin with, she continues to put Teresa in her place (which is squarely below Hwee Leng’s social standing) at every opportunity. It is Teck and Jiale who start to open up to the maid who becomes something of a confidant. And while the economic situation worsens for Teck and Hwee Leng grows more and more stressed, Teresa is slowly becoming indispensable for Jiale.

Chen, directing his first feature-length film, based this on his own experiences growing up in Singapore at the time period the film is set in with two working parents and a Filipino maid/nanny (in fact following the film’s Camera d’Or win at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, he was inspired to find her in the Philippines and re-establish contact). The film has that air of realism that often comes with semi-biographical films.

Ler is a pretty natural actor and dang cute on top of that. He is often called upon to be mean, surly and cruel which kids don’t necessarily take to naturally – and as the film progresses, he is called upon to be reflective, open and affectionate. Young Jiale is somewhat spoiled and very spirited and although it might sound like an easy role to play, let me assure you that it isn’t.

Yeo also has a thankless role, but pulls it off. She isn’t necessarily a sympathetic character (which makes one wonder about Chen’s relationship with his mother) but she’s a character who is definitely buffeted by winds outside of her control. Her husband is somewhat weak and doesn’t always act wisely or in the family’s best interests and that weighs upon her, almost forced into the role of being the pillar of the family which may or may not be a role she’s suited for (Hwee Ling I mean). Yeo became pregnant shortly before filming began and her pregnancy was then written into the film. Chen’s own mother was not pregnant during the time that his nanny was there. Incidentally, the pictures over the end credits are Yeo with her actual baby, who was born shortly after filming ended.

The relationships between mother and son, father and son and mother and father are all impacted by the arrival of Teresa, who changes the dynamics of all the relationships in the family. Her relationships with the family members are also very distinct and different from one another. They feel organic and realistic and go a long way to making the film accessible.

While the movie drags in spots and occasionally makes redundant points, the feeling here is of being the fly on the wall in an intimate family setting. We see the toll the financial stress takes on the family – the kind of thing plenty of Americans can relate to in these difficult times. We also see the toll Jiale’s behavior takes on the parents, which any parent from any culture can relate to. There will be those who will find this to hit a little too close to home in places, but at the very least it’s comforting to know that no matter where you live, there are things we all share in common.

REASONS TO GO: Nice complexity to the various relationships. Americans will be able to relate to the issues here.

REASONS TO STAY: Feels a little forced in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language and smoking as well as some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is named for the Filipino province where Chen’s actual nanny was from.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Nanny Diaries

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Offshoring 2014 continues!

For No Good Reason


The artist in his workshop.

The artist in his workshop.

(2014) Documentary (Sony Classics) Ralph Steadman, Johnny Depp, Hunter S. Thompson, Jann Wenner, Terry Gilliam, William S. Burroughs, Hal Wilner. Directed by Charlie Paul

If you look at the names in the cast of this documentary, you’ll see some of the greatest and most iconoclastic minds of the 20th century. That they are all linked by one famously private British artist gives you an idea of the esteem that he’s held in and the kinds of people who love his art.

Ralph Steadman moved from Great Britain to New York in the 1950s and the following decade met Thompson on a trip to the Kentucky Derby. Steadman would become the illustrator of Thompson’s books and his style and images have become permanently linked with Thompson’s prose. His association with Thompson helped make him essentially Rolling Stone‘s house cartoonist during the glory days of the magazine.

His style which utilizes great big spatters of India ink and other materials is beautiful and grotesque at the same time. We see his technique which is perhaps unique in all of art; when he scatters paint spatters across his canvas, he is almost angry as the liquid hits the surface with an audible SNAP.

Thompson and Steadman maintained a friendship that was often dysfunctional – Steadman hints at the verbal abuse that Thompson would occasionally heap on him – but the genuine affection is evident between both men.

Depp acts as kind of a host and occasional narrator here, appearing onscreen at Steadman’s home and studio in Kent, England to converse, reminisce and utter the word “amazing” again and again while perusing books of Steadman’s artwork while wearing ostentatious hats. I can understand why he’s there – the presence of Depp doubtlessly enticed Sony Classics to distribute the film (which reportedly took 15 years to make) and might be expected to attract fans of the star to see the movie.

Sadly however, the effect of having Depp in the movie is intrusive and takes away focus from the subject of the film. I don’t think that could be helped but frankly, I would have preferred a little less Depp and a lot more Steadman. Steadman doesn’t share a lot of himself to the world; he rarely grants interviews and when he does almost never reveals any personal information. He prefers to let his artwork do the talking for him.

Steadman does make it clear that he sees the role of art as a means to change things for the better, which is admirable. While Thompson did copious amounts of drugs and partied maybe as hard as anyone in history ever has, Steadman did no drugs and focused his attention on social and political causes, many of which were the subjects of his art. His wit is often scathing and generally on the sly side which is on good display here from the opening frames when the Sony Classics logo is displayed in Steadman’s preferred font.

Steadman admires disparate talents like Da Vinci and Picasso, and there is an element of the cave drawings in his art as well, a kind of modern primitivism. The interpretation of art is an individual thing – what I see when I look at Steadman’s work will be somewhat different than what you see. That’s the beauty of art – we see it through our own perceptions and something I miss you’ll latch onto, and vice versa. Everyone interprets art individually.

Along with the Depp thing, I thought the film dragged a bit in places and was tedious in other places. Some judicious trimming would have benefitted the film overall. It is also disappointing that we don’t really get to know Steadman well, although we learn a lot about him. For that alone and for being a fly on the wall as he creates makes the film worth viewing, but I can’t help but think that there should have been a better film made considering the subject matter.

REASONS TO GO: Clever at times, displaying Steadman’s signature wit. Fascinating look at Steadman’s process.

REASONS TO STAY: Overly long and occasionally tedious. Depp’s presence is often distracting.

FAMILY VALUES:  A fairly steady stream of foul language, some drug references and brief sexual images in an artistic setting

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Steadman retains all of his original artwork. The only art he sells are copies or prints of his work which he signs individually.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Offshoring 2014 Begins!

Joe (2013)


Joe has his sights set on opening that there can of whoopass.

Joe has his sights set on opening that there can of whoopass.

(2013) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Adriene Mishler, Brian Mays, AJ Wilson McPhaul, Sue Rock, Heather Kafka, Brenda Isaacs Booth, Anna Niemtschk, Elbert Evan Hill III, Milton Fountain, Roderick L. Polk, Aaron Spivey-Sorrells, John Daws, Kay Epperson, Lico Reyes, Erin Reed, Dana Freitag. Directed by David Gordon Green

florida-film-festival-2014We are none of us born perfect and some of us come into the world with more obstacles than others to achieve perfection. We still plug away nonetheless, eking out our place in the world and trying to make a life that we can call our own.

Joe Ransom (Cage) is an ex-con with a hair-trigger temper. He is trying the straight and narrow as the boss of a crew that poisons trees so that a developer can come in and snatch the land for rock bottom prices, then raze it and do what they like with it. It’s illegal as hell, but it’s the most honest living Joe can find.

He drinks and smokes too much and from time to time gets into bar fights, particularly with a lout named Willie Russell (Blevins) who shoots Joe in the shoulder in retaliation. Joe takes up with hookers and drives a battered old truck, occasionally running in with the law and getting bailed out by his old friend Earl (McPhaul) who knows that despite the rough edges Joe is basically a decent sort.

One day a young teenage boy named Gary (Sheridan) shows up looking for work along with his father Wade (Poulter). The dad is an absolute disaster; a raging alcoholic who beats his son up and takes the money he earns to buy cigarettes and booze. Gary on the other hand is a hard worker who impresses Joe from the get-go and the not easily impressed Joe takes the boy under his wing somewhat and becomes a mentor to him.

Certainly Gary could easily be headed on the same freight train that his father is riding but even the exceedingly imperfect Joe is more of a role model than his dad. Of course this doesn’t sit well with Wade who meets up with Willie Russell who after further humiliation from Joe is ready for something even more violent.

Cage in recent years has achieved the kind of notoriety that no actor wants – for excessive scene-chewing and taking on roles in movies that are wildly forgettable or worse. Here in one performance he very nearly erases a decade of performances that are simply put not worthy of a man of Cage’s talent. This is the Nicolas Cage whose movies I looked forward to seeing; this is the guy who won Oscars and charmed critics with his offbeat charisma. Those who have been disappointed by his recent run of B, C and D movies can rejoice that he’s finally been given a role deserving of him.

Sheridan continues his hot streak of excellent roles in mainly Southern gothic films. As in Mud he has a first-rate adult actor to work with and one gets the sense that Sheridan is learning well from watching pros like Cage and Matthew McConaughey at work. One gets the sense that he is going to be around for a good long time and may well be the most decorated actor of the 2020s.

Green, like Cage, had a little bit of a career hiccup after a promising start; it seems likely that he knew that he wasn’t doing his best work and took a step back and started where he came from – the indie drama. This is his best work in awhile, the fine Prince Avalanche notwithstanding. He captures the sordid desperation of the very lowest and impoverished classes in rural Texas and allows them their own brand of dignity. These aren’t people you may hang out with or even want to, but Green gives them more respect than other directors might have been willing to in the same position. Kudos to him for that much.

This can be tough going in places. The sordid existence of Joe, Gary, Wade and Willie Russell may be too much grit for some but those willing to stick it out will be rewarded with a real gem of a movie.

REASONS TO GO: Cage’s best performance in years. Gritty and unpleasant but always compelling.

REASONS TO STAY: The ugliness can be overwhelming.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some fairly disturbing stuff including depictions of child abuse and alcoholism, violence, foul language and strong sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Poulter, who passed away two months after filming concluded, was actually a homeless man with a history of alcoholism and violent behavior when cast by Green, who is known for casting local non-professionals in his movies.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mud

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Lunchbox

Mission Congo


Not so much humanitarian aid.

Not so much humanitarian aid.

(2012) Documentary (C-Colony) Pat Robertson, Robert Hinkle, Jessie Pott. Directed by David Turner and Lara Zizic

Florida Film Festival 2014

In the interest of transparency, I’m not a big fan of organized religion. Any human agency that acts as a middle man between the believer and whatever God they worship is highly suspect as far as I’m concerned. I’m suspicious of anyone who tells me they have an inkling of God’s plan, particularly if God’s plan includes my checkbook.

In 1994, the Rwandan genocide was in full force and millions of refugees poured out of that country and into what was then known as Zaire, the neighboring country. Establishment of refugee camps was initially highly disorganized and soon the camps were beset by disease, starvation and overcrowding. Doctors Without Borders, the International Red Cross and other aid organizations immediately dispatched teams to help with the critical situation.

Televangelist Pat Robertson also sent out pleas for aid. He established the charitable fund Operation Blessing. He got on his television ministry program, The 700 Club to plead for immediate aid. That money, he told viewers, would be used to send out teams of doctors who would be boots on the ground helping those who needed it. Funds would also be used to send desperately needed medicine and supplies for the refugees.

As time went on, Robertson bragged how his organization had been a godsend in the crisis, among the first on the front lines of saving those in need, establishing a school in the nearby town of Dumi and setting up a farm to feed the surrounding area. Both entities, the website for Operation Blessing insists, are in full flower today serving the needs of the locals.

A story in the Virginia Pilot newspaper took a critical look at the funds for Operation Blessing and discovered that the claims being made on television weren’t backed up by the tax records for the charity. Documentarians Zizic and Turner decided to make a documentary on the subject.

Their assertion is that contrary to the glowing reports broadcast on The 700 Club and on the website of Operation Blessing (or OBI as it’s known as), OBI was not the presence it made itself out to be. Physicians from Doctors Without Borders don’t recall seeing a presence from the Robertson-backed organization, and what presence was there was usually accompanied by a camera crew.

In fact, the film alleges that Robertson was much more interested in his diamond mining operation through the African Development Corporation which he owned in partnership with a pastor in Zaire – what is now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In fact, planes carrying what were supposed to be shipments of aid and personnel to the refugee camp in Goma actually carried mining equipment, according to Hinkle who is characterized by the filmmakers as the Chief Pilot of Operation Blessing (although OBI denies he ever worked for them).

The filmmakers do show through broadcast footage from the Christian Broadcast Network (Robertson’s cable channel) and The 700 Club that doctors and medical personnel that they claimed had been flown there by Operation Blessing were actually from Doctors Without Borders and the supplies they showed were from the Red Cross. They do make a pretty compelling case.

The 2011 tax returns submitted by OBI list somewhere north of $120 million in revenue but are not specific as to where that money is going. The filmmakers make the reasonable suggestion that current laws protecting  tax-exempt charities (which the OBI is registered as) require them to show specifically how their money is spent.

We don’t get to see Robertson’s side of the story although apparently an invitation was extended to him and his organization to participate; they have threatened to sue the filmmakers (which apparently hasn’t yet come to pass as of this writing) and have issued press releases vehemently denying the charges leveled at them.

I would be the first to tell you that just because someone makes a documentary film doesn’t mean they are on the side of the angels; you can spin things about any way you want to so it behooves you to check into things more thoroughly before accepting the opinion of anybody on anything, particularly one with a very specific point of view. However, the filmmakers present their case so well using footage and testimony of people who were there, I can’t help think that if Robertson wasn’t guilty of outright fraud, he was at least complicit in misleading the public. Which one would think someone professing to follow the teachings of Christ would be loathe to do.

REASONS TO GO: Builds a well-ordered case against Operation Blessing in particular and televangelism in general.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks balance. Takes awhile to get going.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language and disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/20/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Saving Tammy Faye

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: Draft Day

The Kill Team


Adam Winfield looks forward to an uncertain future.

Adam Winfield looks forward to an uncertain future.

(2013) Documentary (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Adam Winfield, Jeremy Morlock, Justin Stoner, Andrew Holmes, Chris Winfield, Emma Winfield, Eric Montalvo. Directed by Dan Krauss

Florida Film Festival 2014

It has been said that war is the absence of morality The truth is that war forces young men and women into moral choices that they simply don’t have the experience to deal with. So many of our young men and women who go to war and are fortunate enough to return home do so with emotional scars and difficulties that plague them in civilian life.

War brings out the worst in people. Perhaps that has never been more true than the case of the Kill Team – the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division of the Army embedded in Afghanistan. Several members of this unit made headlines when they were brought up on charges of killing Afghan civilians without provocation, committing atrocities on their corpses and taking “souvenirs” of human remains.

This documentary follows the trial of Adam Winfield, one of the accused. He comes from a military family – his father Chris is an ex-Marine. Adam is not a large and beefy fellow; he’s barely 100 lbs soaking wet. He was thrust in a situation in country which he didn’t expect – boredom.

As bored young men will do, the team went looking for trouble and started using civilians for target practice. They would dress up the corpses with weapons to make their actions look like “righteous” kills. This bothered Adam and he spoke to his father about it but Adam was also intimidated by Hobbs, whom he claimed threatened to kill him and make his body disappear if Adam were to tell anybody. Adam and his father reported the issue anonymously but there’s no evidence that the Army took their report seriously.

 

Eventually, someone did blow the whistle – but on the hashish smoking that the team was doing. Justin Stoner reported the drug use to his superior which led to an investigation that unearthed the trophies that the team had taken, including reportedly a necklace made of human fingers. The Army then launched one of the largest investigations in their history and the results made headlines. Adam, who had tried to blow the whistle, was among those indicted.

The subject matter is disturbing enough, but one of the things the filmmakers point out is that these are essentially boys thrown into long stretches of monotony punctuated by occasional life-or-death situations. The intensity of war is something nobody can ever be prepared for and yet we send in the age bracket least able to deal with such things. If you doubt me, just hang around some 18-21 year old guys sometime.

Inasmuch as it is about Adam (in particular) and its cohorts, this is also about what war does to people. Speaking to Adam’s parents, we get a sense that he was a perfectly well-adjusted young man before he was sent to Afghanistan. He came back a little bit broken. The movie is harrowing and a must-see for all politicians who are thinking about how glorious it would be to start another war.

REASONS TO GO: Powerful subject matter. Compelling testimony. Handles the atrocities with delicacy.

REASONS TO STAY: Lots of talking heads and military jargon.

FAMILY VALUES:  Adult themes on the nature of war and death.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winner of the Best Documentary Feature at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/18/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Restrepo

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Raid 2

SlingShot


Who knew that the inventor of the Segway was such a badass?!

Who knew that the inventor of the Segway was such a badass?!

(2014) Documentary (Moon Avenue) Dean Kamen, Muhtar Kent. Directed by Paul Lazarus

Florida Film Festival 2014

The problems of the world sometimes look so insurmountable that we feel helpless to do anything to remedy them. The truth is however that very often some of the biggest problems are resolved by a single person with the will, the drive and the expertise deciding to take that problem on and solve it.

Dean Kamen isn’t a household name but he should be. He is best known as the inventor of the Segway, the two-wheeled device that is sometimes used in place of walking tours. It is somewhat ironic that the device, which never caught on in the way he had hoped, is what has been up to now his legacy – he has since worked quite tirelessly in the medical field with among other things a portable dialysis device to his credit.

But Kamen isn’t satisfied with helping just a few people – he wants his legacy to be something more notable. As he correctly points out, half of the world’s illnesses are the result of water borne pathogens. If he could figure out a way to clean up the world’s water supply, he could empty half of the world’s hospital beds in a single stroke. Not a bad legacy to leave behind.

To successfully do this, he would need to develop a device that is easy to maintain, requires a minimal amount of power and is reasonably compact. All of these are matters of engineering and he and his team at his engineering think tank Deka Technology are very good engineers. So to make a long story short, he succeeded. The device exists. Testing it out in Ghana and Central America, the device proved to be successful.

The issue is getting them to where they’re needed and it is here that he hit his biggest roadblocks. Government agencies were unhelpful as were agencies like the United Nations and the Red Cross. Kamen’s frustration was palpable. What he needed was a distribution system.

Also the founder of the FIRST program and robotics competition which had outgrown its venue, Kamen had sought out a new venue for his competition and struck a deal with Phillips Arena in Atlanta. When he arrived in the Georgia city, he was struck by all the Coca-Cola signs around the arena and the city and was struck by inspiration – what product can be found in virtually every village in the world no matter how remote?

Coke wasn’t just a beverage he realized but also a delivery system. He contacted Muhtar Kent, the CEO of Coke who was intrigued with the idea. A bargain was soon struck – if Kamen could produced a certain number of devices, the Company would agree to underwrite the distribution of the devices and transport advisors who would teach the locals how to maintain it. In return, Kamen would invent for them a new soda fountain to replace the one they’d been using for more than half a century. Kamen came up with the Freestyle Coke dispensers, now in use at places like Burger King, Five Guys, AMC Theaters and Pei Wei.

The story is inspiring and it’s hard to believe that we are on the cusp of overcoming this problem – in a few short years the worlds water supply could well be completely cleansed. But equally inspiring is Kamen himself – he is an engaging personality, thoughtful and loquacious. By the film’s end you may well want to go invent something yourself. He also has a puckish sense of humor – he really took to the clapper which filmmakers use to sync the sound and film in the editing process. Throughout the film he claps his hands expertly to start the scene, which became kind of a theme among platinum passholders at the Festival who often “clapped” like Kamen just before a film screened.

While the movie drags a little bit in the middle as Kamen himself is bogged down in the bureaucratic red tape trying to get his invention out to where it is needed, this is a very good documentary that not only explains a major problem the world faces but also its solution which is somewhat rare for a documentary. It isn’t just the story of that problem that is engaging however, but also Kamen himself who keeps the interest of the viewer. That makes this one double threat of a documentary.

REASONS TO GO: Inspirational. Kamen is extremely articulate and likable.

REASONS TO STAY: Drags a little bit in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  Suitable for all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The second film in Florida Film Festival history to take home both the Jury and Audience awards in a single category.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/16/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: If You Build It

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Kill Team

The Front Man


Why, yes, we're in a band.

Why, yes, we’re in a band.

(2014) Documentary (DevlinPix) Jim Wood, Christie Wood, Dan Snyder, John Kayne, Glen Burtnik, Graham Maby, Howard Stern, Beetlejuice, Robin Givens. Directed by Paul Devlin

Florida Film Festival 2014

We are all the stars of our own documentary feature. Our lives are, to us, as important and meaningful as any we see on the screen or read about in the newspapers and history books. The one thing we all have in common is that our lives are ours to live.

Jim Wood is one of those guys who not only gets to have his own documentary feature, other people are going to get to see it as well. In all honesty he’s a pretty ordinary guy in a lot of respects – he’d probably be the first to say he’s just a guy from Jersey – but he has hopes of being a rock star. Or at least, he did.

He did something about it too. He has a band – the Loaded Poets – that have been playing in Jersey bars and recording tracks for about 27 years now, dating back to when they were in high school. He and his band mates – Dan Snyder and John Kayne – have been plugging away for nearly all that time. They have no illusions that they’re going to hit it big. That’s just about impossible to do even if you’re young and attractive and while these guys aren’t necessarily bad looking, they’re well past the young portion of the equation. In other words, you won’t be seeing them on American Idol ever and also as unlikely on such shows as America’s Got Talent or The Voice.

Which is likely all right by them. They want success on their own terms which means the songs come first, and in all honesty they aren’t half bad. However, Jim has joined his bandmates in wedded bliss – and Jim’s got a gorgeous wife in Christie. She’s very supportive of his music – going so far as to make out with Beetlejuice on the Howard Stern show just to get her husband’s webpage advertised on his show – but she realizes neither one of them are getting any younger and the window for having a family is beginning to swing shut with an ominous creak.

Jim is a wacky kind of guy who sometimes looks at least on-camera like he doesn’t take much seriously but that would be doing him a disservice. While I have no doubt that he’s a kid at heart, one gets the feeling that when he needs to be he’s smart and mature. The decision to have the kid alters his life as he trades one dream for another – although he continues to make music on his own terms.

While fame eludes him, he talks to a couple of local boys who grabbed a fair slice of fame of their own – Glen Burtnik who had a minor hit in the ’80s and was a member of Styx for several years, and Graham Maby, best known as the bass player for the Joe Jackson band. Both offer insights into fame, rock and roll and how to integrate it into a good life.

This is like watching a documentary about your buddy down the block. Devlin, who has known Jim since kindergarten, uses home movies and years of footage that he has taken to compile a look at an ordinary guy living an extraordinary life. A huge fan of the Z-Movie Alien Factor, he seeks out its director Don Dohler and after impressing the affable director by quoting dialogue, casts both Jim and Christie in one of his last films (he passed away in 2006) as victims of vampires.

While the movie violates one of the prime commandments of home movies – your child is always far cuter to you than it is to everyone else – to be fair that’s a violation that occurs in a number of documentaries. Otherwise, Jim, Christie and their coterie are people you wouldn’t mind sharing a beer with at a barbecue down the street. This isn’t the most important documentary you’ll ever see but I could have spent more time with the people onscreen and at the end of the day that’s about the highest compliment you can pay to any kind of movie.

REASONS TO GO: Very human. Likable subjects.

REASONS TO STAY: Not really vital.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some sexuality and a few instances of foul language here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Devlin’s local TV pilot Slammin’  which presented the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe semi-final poetry slam as a sporting event, was nominated for two local Emmys.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/10/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Anvil: The Story of Anvil

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Slingshot

Last I Heard


Michael Rappaport finally figures out that Mira Sorvino is Paul's daughter.

Michael Rappaport finally figures out that Mira Sorvino is Paul’s daughter.

(2013) Dramedy (Cine Relevante) Paul Sorvino, Michael Rappaport, Renee Props, Andrea Kelly, Lev Gorn, Steven Bauer, Chazz Palminteri, Paul Ben-Victor, Hassan Johnson, Johnny Williams, Andrea Navedo, Roberta Wallach, D. Kevin Kelly, William de Paolo, Michael Sorvino, Logan Crifasi-Zenie, John Damroth, Andrea Verdura, Mario Ruffo, Olivia Panepinto. Directed by David Rodriguez

Florida Film Festival 2014

There’s no doubt that the Mafia isn’t what it used to be. Once the most powerful criminal organization on earth, it has become a shadow of itself, most of its most feared figures in jail, dead or worse, grown old.

Joseph “Mr. Joe” Scoleri (Sorvino) is in that lamented latter category. Released after a 20 year stint in the pen, he has a bum ticker, no money and is forbidden contact with anyone involved with crime – in short, just about everyone he knows. He lives with his daughter Rita (Props) who scarcely knows her dad, given that he essentially spent nearly her entire life in prison.

The world has changed a great deal since Joe went away and not just in the size of cell phones. The neighborhood has changed as well. There was respect there once but now Joe is just another old man tottering along the sidewalk to wherever it is that old men go.

But for his next door neighbor Bobby DiBianco (Rappaport), Joe is still an object of hero worship. Guys like him kept the neighborhood safe enough so a woman could walk untroubled to the corner store for a carton of milk in the middle of the night. Guys like him kept drugs and gangs out. Guys like him took care of guys like Bobby.

Now, Bobby is going to take care of Joe as best he can – run errands for him, take him to the doctor, that kind of thing. That kind of closeness attracts attention – from Dominic Salerno Jr. (Gorn), the last guy standing with any connection to the Mob and who sees Joe as someone who can legitimize him, and from the FBI who wonder if Joe is using Bobby as some kind of front. Bobby explains to them that in THIS neighborhood in Staten Island, people take care of each other. That’s the way it’s always been and as long as he’s around, that’s the way it will always be.

The truth is that Bobby is just a deli owner who’s never gotten into trouble and when Joe asks him to get in touch with one of Joe’s old mob friends, he balks. Joe sees this as disloyalty and a rift is driven between the two of them. Joe’s old school ways also create an issue with his daughter who is as 21st century as they get. Considering how bad Joe’s heart is, his time is running out – can he square things with those he cares about most before his ticker stops ticking?

Most mob pictures fall into two categories – the heavy dramas a la Scorsese and Coppola, and the lighter comedies like Analyze That and Mickey Blue Eyes.  This one falls somewhere in between. Director Rodriguez has described it as a “post-Mafia picture” – which can be interpreted as what happens when one retires from the Mafia or what happens after the Mafia becomes less relevant. Both apply here.

There are some issues here. The dialogue is really repetitive and points are hammered home over and over again until you want to go medieval on the screenwriters and scream as you beat them into a bloody mess “We get it, we get it!!!!” Just a cursory editing of the script might have lopped a good 20-30 minutes off the running time. That’s time that could have been used in further developing the Rita character who could have used a little more screen time.

Sorvino though gives a powerful enough performance that at least in my case I was willing to overlook the script flaws. Rodriguez wisely allows Sorvino’s craggy features to tell much of the unsaid story and the character’s confusion and frustration come through loud and clear without him having to yell – although he occasionally does that too.

Rappaport excels at playing the nice guy next door so this is right in his wheelhouse. Rappaport’s genuine likability plays off nicely of Sorvino’s curmudgeon. Many of the best scenes in the movie involve the interaction between the two.

The way the movie ends is not entirely unexpected given what comes before, but what comes before is largely fresh and new. This is a viewpoint we haven’ t seen previously; the closest that we’ve come is The Sopranos. While this isn’t the slam dunk it might have been had the writing been a little more precise, it still is worth checking out just for the premise and Sorvino alone.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances and chemistry from Sorvino and Rappaport. Different take on the Mafiosi than we normally see in the movies.

REASONS TO STAY: Often repetitive. Dialogue is stilted. The ending is kind of predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language and some disturbing violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although both are veterans of many Mafia-themed films, this marks the first on-screen appearance together for Sorvino and Palminteri.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Analyze This

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Le Chef (Comme un chef)


In France, chef = cool.

In France, chef = cool.

(2012) Comedy (Cohen Media Group) Jean Reno, Michael Youn, Raphaelle Agogue, Julien Boisselier, Salome Stevenin, Serge Lariviere, Issa Doumbia, Bun-hay Mean, Pierre Vernier, Santiago Segura, Genevieve Casile, Andre Penvern, Rebecca Miquel, James Gerard, Henri Payet, Franck de la Personne, Celine Caussimon, Jeanne Ferron. Directed by Daniel Cohen

Florida Film Festival 2014

Sacre Cordon Bleu!! If there is one thing the French love more than….well, love, it’s cuisine. Those Michelin stars are a really big deal in France.

Just ask Alexandre Lagarde (Reno). He has parlayed his three star status into a lucrative career with several restaurants, a television show and a frozen food line to his name. However, life isn’t rosy for him; he’s lost his fire and inspiration. His restaurants are owned by a corporate mogul whose snarky son Stanislas (Boisselier) would like nothing more than to see Alexandre, whom he considers old-fashioned and out-dated, retired to the Gulag of the French countryside and his golden boy Cyril Boss (Gerard), a devotee of molecular gastronomy, installed in the flagship restaurant Cargo Lagarde. Alexandre of course is livid about this; how humiliating it would be to be forced out of the restaurant that he built and bears his name.

The guidebook reviewers will soon be checking out Alexandre’s spring menu and both Stanislas and Cyril are confident that the more modern-thinking guidebook critics will strip Alexandre of at least one of his stars which would contractually allow Stanislas to fire Alexandre from his own restaurant. The great chef’s troubles are also extending to his home life; his daughter Amandine (Stevenin) is getting ready to deliver her thesis on Russian literature, a subject Alexandre cares about as much about as he cares about the spring menu at McDonald’s. Things are tense with Amandine who resents her father for caring more about his restaurant than he does about her.

Jacky Bonnot (Youn) doesn’t have any Michelin stars yet but he is sure he deserves at least a few. He’s got tremendous talent and a flair for vegetables; they whisper to him. Unfortunately, he’s insufferably mule-headed and arrogant, never a good combination in the kitchen, and is fired from job after job. This exasperates his pregnant girlfriend Beatrice (Agogue) who moves back in with her parents who encourage her to get back together with Jacky because he’s such a good chef. Realizing that she’s serious, he gets whatever job he can, in this case painting the exterior of an old folks home.

Through a fairly serendipitous set of circumstances, Jacky catches the eye of Alexandre who gives him an unpaid internship at Cargo Lagarde. Jacky’s talents get him the position Alexandre’s right hand in the kitchen and his prickly personality and stubborn refusal to compromise earn him the enmity of the other chefs. Jacky at last has his shot but is it on a sinking ship? And will Jacky torpedo his own chances at achieving his dreams?

It’s hard to find comedies like this these days as it seems that most Hollywood comedies rely on star comedians (i.e. Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Melissa McCarthy), all-out raunch, going big on outrage or just throwing as many jokes at the screen as possible and seeing what sticks. Le Chef tells its story honestly and while the plot may not be anything extraordinary it is told well and manages to make us laugh along the way at fairly regular intervals.

Reno is intensely likable even when his character is being a bit of a jerk. Reno is one of the most versatile actors in the world, being equally comfortable in action films, dramas and comedies and adept in all three. His presence is welcome in any film whether it’s made in Hollywood or France and he’s one of those actors that will motivate me to go see whatever movie he’s in even if it is in a supporting role.

Youn is a well-known comedian in France and while I’m not personally familiar with his work, I’m told that his performance here is fairly typical for him. His Jacky has a fine dining soul in a fast food world and therein much of the comedy of the movie’s first third arises. Jacky is a prickly bastard but you still end up rooting for him despite his arrogance and stubbornness. Hey, nobody’s perfect, right?

The film utilizes some really clever moments nicely and while it occasionally descends into low comedy unnecessarily by the film’s end I was more than satisfied. Comedies are difficult to pull off properly and rarely make the kind of splash at festivals that dramas do but this was one of the better narrative features at this year’s festival and a welcome relief from the angst of the dramatic features.

REASONS TO GO: Reno is incredibly likable. Funny where it needs to be. Will give you a hankering for French food.

REASONS TO STAY: Descends into silliness occasionally.  

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ratatouille

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Last I Heard

Before I Disappear


When you're a junkie in New York, the surreality never ends.

When you’re a junkie in New York, the surreality never ends.

(2014) Drama (Fuzzy Logic) Shawn Christensen, Fatima Ptacek, Emmy Rossum, Paul Wesley, Ron Perlman, Richard Schiff, Joseph Perrino, Isabelle McNally, Joseph DeVito, Hani Avital, James Chen, Greg Connolly, Anthoula Katsimatides, Josh Mann, Sean Ringgold, James Andrew O’Connor, Patrick Miller, Jacqui Denski, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Roseanne Ludwigson. Directed by Shawn Christensen

Florida Film Festival 2014

Out of our life choices comes our life; those choices tend to define who we are and not only in the eyes of others. We are what we do. That doesn’t mean that our worst life choices can’t be redeemed but it’s never easy. Sometimes it takes a really bad night for us to find redemption, especially if we’re not particularly looking for it.

Richie (Christensen) is the very poster boy for “loser” – a New York City junkie. He makes what meager money he can by cleaning toilets in a hip club with underworld connections that don’t quite pay his debts and barely pay for his drugs. He lives in a POS apartment that even a cockroach might turn its nose up at – assuming cockroaches have noses which I don’t think they do. But I digress.

Late one night he makes a terrible discovery in one of the bathroom stalls, the kind of discovery that can shut a club down even if it’s connected. His hamfisted boss Bill (Perlman) encourages him not to speak of what he has seen and as a gift he gives him some heroin.

Richie may be a junkie but he understands the streets. He knows what’s what and he knows that his boss intends for him to take the heroin and die. Richie still has a little pride left however; he’s going to slit his own wrists. Ha ha on you, Bill.

As Richie soaks in the tub waiting for the end to come the phone rings. More as a Pavlovian reflex than anything else, he answers it – it’s his sister, Maggie (Rossum) whom he has been estranged from and hasn’t spoken to in years. She’s desperate – she’s been detained and has no one to pick up her daughter Sophie (Ptacek) from school. Maggie is shrill and nearly hysterical and so Richie rouses himself, bandages himself up with packing tape and plods off to save the day.

In the course of a day into the wee hours of the morning, Sophie will accompany Richie from the refined apartments and schools of the hoi polloi to the seediest underbelly of skid row. Sophie, smart and driven, is used to having her schedule planned to the tick. Richie is used to things going wrong. The two couldn’t be further apart on the evolutionary scale if Richie sprouted a tail and hung from trees by his toes. Yet somehow, they find that blood really is thicker than water and that not every winner has it all, nor every loser without redeeming qualities.

That sounds like typical Hollywood crap no doubt; two opposites coming together and making of each other something better than they were. Christensen does it so skillfully here however, so organically that you believe every sordid second of it. Part of the reason this works is that Christensen was wise enough to cast himself in the lead. Perhaps that sounds more like ego than wisdom but trust me, it’s not ego when you deliver. Christensen has that look of a puppy whose been kicked too many times by a cruel master. That cruel master in Richie’s case is life itself.

Throughout the movie, Richie is writing a suicide note to Vista (McNally), his girlfriend who he has been separated from. It’s never explicitly stated, but I get the sense that Vista has preceded Richie into the great beyond and that’s part of Richie’s motivation for wanting to slit his wrists. Still, his little niece gives him a reason to delay that trip at least for a little while.

The chemistry between Ptacek and Christensen is also genuine. Ptacek is a mature actress, much more so than you would think from someone of her tender years. Sophie has a great deal of strength on the surface, but beneath the veneer she’s a lonely little girl who wants to make her mommy proud. The part is equal parts sass and vulnerability and Ptacek pulls both off masterfully.

Schiff, Perlman and Rossum are all veterans who have a trio of fine resumes; other than Rossum, none of them are on screen much but they make the most of their time and give the film a little more cache than it might have otherwise.

Before I Disappear is essentially the extension of Christensen’s Oscar-winning live-action short Curfew which introduces the characters in a very similar situation. Ptacek and Christensen both appear in it, although there is a different actress playing Maggie. Still, when you can get someone like Emmy Rossum who to her credit is doing a much different role than we’re used to seeing from her.

This is a keeper, folks. It’s one of those movies that has just enough levity to keep from being dreary, but is serious enough to retain authenticity. It will put you through an emotional wringer and make you care about Richie and Sophie and even Maggie who can be quite bitchy. While some may not appreciate the sleazy element and the glimpse at a very sordid part of the world, one can’t help but think that this could be the kind of film that inspires an entire movement – call it modern noir if you like. Just be sure and give me the credit when you do.

REASONS TO GO: Gritty. Well-performed all around. Terrific story. Christensen amazing in lead.

REASONS TO STAY: Might be too rough for some.

FAMILY VALUES:  A whole lot of foul language, disturbing images, drug use, violence and brief sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Debuted at this year’s South by Southwest where it won the Audience Award.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: L’Enfant

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Le Chef