Mudbound


In Mississippi, things are always black and white.

(2017) Drama (Netflix) Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Jason Clarke, Jonathan Banks, Lucy Faust, Dylan Arnold, Rob Morgan, Kerry Cahill, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Rebecca Chulew, David Jensen, Geraldine Singer, Floyd Anthony Johns Jr., Henry Frost, Peter Schueller, Roderick Hill, Cynthia LeBlanc, Samantha Hoefer. Directed by Dee Rees

 

The generation that fought the Second World War has been called the Greatest Generation and who am I to argue? The fact remains however that not everyone in that generation was treated greatly. The African-American soldiers who fought for freedom were ironically denied it when they returned home. It would be 20 years before the Civil Rights era would be able to effectively call attention to the plight of African-Americans in a meaningful way.

Jamie McAllan (Hedlund) returns home from fighter pilot duty to his brother Henry (Clarke), their dad Pappy (Bans) and Henry’s wife Laura (Mulligan) trying to make things work on a farm that is literally a muddy bog especially when it rains which it does frequently in Mississippi. Henry sees the land as a symbol of his failures. Constantly denigrated by his racist father Henry isn’t a bad man but he is a weak one living in the shadow of his popular younger brother. Jamie though is partially broken; suffering from PTSD after his war experiences,

Also coming home from war is Ronsel Jackson (Mitchell) but to far different circumstances. His father, preacher Hap Jackson (Morgan) is a sharecropper on Henry’s land – well, kinda Henry’s land – who is exploited terribly by Henry who uses Hap as labor regardless of whether Hap is needed on his own farm. When Hap’s mule dies, Henry lets Hap use his own mule – for a price, a hefty one that benefits Henry who is having financial problems of his own. However, it not only adds a burden to Hap’s debt it makes it harder for him to pay it off. On top of it all Ronsel is back to being treated like a second class citizen after getting a taste of freedom in Europe. It is somewhat ironic that he is treated better in the country he helped conquer than in the country he fought for.

Jamie strikes up a friendship with Ronsel; the two men have shared experiences that bond them together. However, a friendship between a white man and an African-American man is simply not done in that time and place. It threatens the social order, and there are horrific consequences  for that.

After making a big splash at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, Netflix purchased the film which has been one of the most prestigious in its current library with no less than four Oscar nominations (Netflix gave it a brief theatrical fun to qualify it). Critics fell all over themselves praising the movie as you can see by their scores below and there is certainly much to celebrate in this film but to be honest, it is also flawed.

The movie is badly undercut by narration made by various characters in the movie. The narration is often florid and draws attention away from the movie, the worst kind of narration possible. I’ve always wondered why filmmakers don’t trust their audiences to understand the images and dialogue they see and hear. Narration isn’t necessary; it’s intrusive and redundant.

The flip side is that the movie is beautifully shot. It isn’t so much beautiful images – the poverty and the rain-soaked mud fields aren’t what you’ll see on the average screensaver – but Rachel Morrison, the Oscar-nominated cinematographer, gives the images a dignity that uplifts the movie overall. And then there are the performances – few films are as well-acted as this one. Blige as Florence, the wise and compassionate mother won most of the kudos (and the Oscar nomination) but for my money it was Mitchell who was actually the real deal. Fresh off his triumph in Straight Outta Comption Mitchell is the moral center of the film. He is a man of pride but he’s also a man of compassion and conscience. He is able to respect a white man despite the wrongs done to him by white men; he is able to feel sympathy for his friend and the demons that haunt him. He is haunted by many of them himself.

The narration is a major problem that prevents me from really loving this film. To the good, it is a timely reminder that we live in an era when America was great according to the slogan. It wasn’t terribly great for those who weren’t white though, and that is part of what those sloganeers are attracted to. The attitudes that shape the movie have never gone away completely; they only went underground until 2016 when our President emboldened those who identify with Pappy to express their racism openly.

There is much good here although as I said this is a very flawed film. Any Netflix subscriber, particularly those who like their movies to be thought-provoking, should have this on their short list of must-see films on Netflix. It’s one I think that bears repeated viewings. Rees is certainly an emerging talent who has plenty to say. Now if we can just get her to stop using voiceovers…

REASONS TO GO: The cast is uniformly wonderful. The cinematography is downright amazing.
REASONS TO STAY: The voiceover narration is a bit obnoxious.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence of the war variety as well as a graphic depiction of racially-motivated violence, profanity including racial epithets as well as some brief nudity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Blige became the first person ever nominated for an acting Oscar and best song Oscar for the same film, and Rachel Morrison was the first woman nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/3/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Giant
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Silencer

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Beirut


It’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad in the desert.

(2018) Thriller (Bleecker Street) Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike, Mark Pellegrino, Dean Norris, Shea Whigham, Douglas Hodge, Jonny Coyne, Leila Bekhti, Kate Fleetwood, Alon Aboutboul, Larry Pine, Sonia Okacha, Mohamed Zouaoui, Ben Affran, Ian Porter, Idir Chender, Nora Garrett, Mohamed Attougui, Anton Obeid, Jay Potter, Brahim Rachiki, Max Kleinveld. Directed by Brad Anderson

 

Lebanon has a history of being a cosmopolitan, beautiful country. Beirut was once described as the Paris of the Middle East. There were sizable Christian and Muslim communities but in the 1970s with an influx of Palestinian refugees Beirut became a powderkeg that exploded into Civil War that by the 1980s left Beirut the usual analogy for dangerous, hostile places.

Mason Skiles (Hamm) in 1972 was the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. A disciple of Henry Kissinger, he was the fair-haired boy in the State Department, on his way to an ambassadorship of his own and at the very least becoming a major player in the diplomatic corps. Then, a terrible tragedy leaves his career in tatters and Skiles personally broken.

Fast-forward ahead ten years and Skiles works as an arbitrator in labor negotiations and not a very good one at that. Maybe it’s due to the fact that Skiles has fallen into the bottle and shows no signs of emerging. However, he is summoned to Beirut – the last place on Earth he wants to go – ostensibly to lecture at the American University there but in reality he is savvy enough to know that’s only a cover.

In fact, his good friend Cal (Pellegrino) has been kidnapped by a PLO splinter group and they will only negotiate with Cal for reasons that will become readily apparent. The problem is that Cal, who works for the CIA, knows enough to make life uncomfortable for the agency in the Middle East. Mason soon discovers that everyone in the American embassy seems to have an agenda of their own; nobody is trustworthy, not even the assistant/handler Sandy (Pike) who has been assigned to Mason. Getting Cal back alive will be no easy matter, not will it be easy for Mason to stay that way as well.

Veteran movie fans will note that Tony Gilroy wrote the script and won’t be surprised at the often convoluted plot – nor will it be surprising that the story is interesting throughout. Anderson is a strong director who keeps the pace brisk without going too fast and glossing over things. Despite having a plot that requires some concentration to follow, this is nonetheless an easy movie to watch.

.Hamm has been on my radar ever since he starred in Mad Men and I’ve always thought that he was going to one day be a big movie star; he’s just one good role away. This is the closest he’s come to that role; despite his character being deeply flawed, Hamm makes him sympathetic. He shows a great deal of charisma and onscreen charm from start to finish. In short, he’s the best thing about the movie which is saying something in a movie with Rosamund Pike in it.

The dialogue can be a bit noir-ish (which can be a bad thing) and the flashbacks can be jarring. Most negatively, there are sequences in which handheld cameras are used that are literally jarring. Those are all minuses to be sure but the pluses just edge them out enough to make this worth a shot.

REASONS TO GO: Hamm continues to show off star quality. The pacing is very crisp.
REASONS TO STAY: There are some unnecessary handheld camera sequences. The ending is a bit anti-climactic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and a brief image of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Hodge and Hamm have appeared on the Netflix series Black Mirror.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Syriana
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Feels

Wind Traces (Restos de viento)


Grief can spawn its own demons.

(2017) Drama (Conejo Media) Dolores Fonzi, Paulina Gil, Ruben Zamora, Julieta Egurrola, Juan Carlos Vives, Diego Aguilar, Itari Marta, Claudine Sosa, Anajose Aldrete Echevarria, Martha Claudia Moreno, Catalina López, Lorenzo Costantini, Juan Carlos Tavera, Karla Rico, Erwin Veytia, Sofia Fernández, Lara Escalante, Mateo Lujano, Gisola Ruiz, Laura Morett, Ana Morgado. Directed by Jimenta Montemayor

We sometimes believe that life is linear; events happen in a progression from birth to death. That’s not how we perceive it, however. Life is a series of moments, some memorable but most not. Sometimes the most mundane of moments carry with them the most elegance, the most grace, the most meaning.

Carmen (Fonzi) is having trouble coping. She can barely rouse herself out of bed in the mornings and she doesn’t get her daughter Ana (Gil) and son Daniel (Aguilar) to school always. She tells the kids that their father has gone away and will come back but Ana, who’s a bit more world-wise knows instinctively that her mother is lying to her. Perhaps Carmen believes it herself.

Carmen has difficulty focusing on things other than getting dressed up and going to the local lounge. She looks amazing and catches the eyes of the single men (and many of the married ones too) as she struts around the bar but she really isn’t looking for company. She’s just doing something that makes her feel alive. She exists in the semi-twilight of alcohol, cigarettes and shock; she may as well be an extra in The Walking Dead.

Daniel copes as best he can; he imagines fantasy figures; one, a thick shambling creature with antlers and a raggedy cloak. Other times it’s an indigenous North American who appears to resemble more the Indians of American westerns more than the natives of Mexico. Either way the figure shows up regularly around Daniel.

At first Ana can’t see the fantasy figures but soon she begins to see them as well. Carmen eventually goes out on a date with a co-worker to a carnival which bothers Daniel immensely. All three of the family members exist as ghosts within their own lives, haunted by memory and haunted by the future without their beloved father and Carmen’s beloved husband. What can they do to begin living again?

This is not a feel-good kind of film nor is it meant to be. The people in this movie are undergoing some of the worst days of their lives and we’re right there in the trenches with them. Fonzi is one of the most beloved actresses in Argentina; this movie illustrates exactly why that is. Not only is she out-of-this-world beautiful, she is also a tremendous performer; Carmen has many layers to her and Fonzi explores them all. She can be sexy and flirtatious one moment, nearly non-functional the next. She tries to bake a cake for her children to brighten their spirits but only ends up dampening up her own in one memorable sequence. She doesn’t have the emotional resources to help her kids through the ordeal and there doesn’t seem to be anyone around her that she’s willing to call upon for support; in fact there are family members she avoids talking to so that she doesn’t have to tell them that her husband is gone and this is months after the fact.

The children do a lot of acting out which is to be expected. The actors playing them however act like real children in that situation would act and that is unexpected. A lot of times child actors have difficulty with negative and difficult emotions; Gil and Aguilar didn’t seem to have that problem and that’s crucial to the success of the film. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been pulled right out of a movie in which the subject matter involves a family dealing with loss because the child actors were completely unconvincing.

Daniel has almost an obsession with native indigenous figures; he watches American westerns (the fantasy figures tend to resemble American natives rather than the Aztec and Mayan indigenous of Mexico. It does make for some jarring visuals but I can’t see why that wouldn’t be a thing in reality. Some iconic American images have tended to bleed over the border in certain respects.

Cinematographer Maria Secco shoots most of the indoor shots in muted colors; even the exterior shots have a less vibrant look to them than normal; everything is seen through a veil of tears and numbness. It’s very effective in setting the tone. The press material describes the film as atmospheric and that’s the most accurate description you’re likely to find.

Watching the pain all three of these people are clearly in can be excruciating at times. It’s like visiting a friend who isn’t that close who is suffering from intense grief and feeling helpless to do anything about it. I wanted to give all of them a hug but of course that’s impossible; all you can do is endure with them and empathize.

There is a visual poetry here that gathers from a variety of sources. I found the movie to be compelling but not always easy and sometimes those are the best kind there are. Be warned if you’re going to see this there is some work involved and almost expected but the reward is not necessarily insight so much as being put back in touch with your own compassion. That can be a worthwhile endeavor all of its own.

Tickets for the Festival can be bought here.

REASONS TO GO: The movie is beautifully atmospheric. The filmmakers handle grief in a realistic way.
REASONS TO STAY: Although it accomplishes what it needs to, the fantasy creature isn’t particularly impressive.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are very adult (despite the presence of children) and as well there is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When Montemayor isn’t making movies, she conducts workshops for girls recently rescued from sexual slavery to help give them marketable skills and reintegrate them back into society.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Monster Calls
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
12 Strong

Tikli and Laxmi Bomb


Another day at the office.

(2017) Drama (Self-Released) Vibhawari Deshpande, Chitrangada Chakraborty, Divya Unny, Upendra Limaye, Suchitra Pillai, Kritika Pande, Mia Maelzer, Ralchi Mansha, Bageshi Jeshirao, Manasi Bhawalkar, Mayur More, Kamil, Saharsh Kumar Shukla. Directed by Aditya Kripalani

 

Prostitution may be the world’s oldest profession but it certainly hasn’t gotten any respect. Sex workers are often characterized as drug addicts who have no other skills other than lying on their back. Most societies, including America, tend to keep prostitutes at an arm’s length in popular culture. Often they aren’t referred to and when portrayed in popular culture they are either victims or plucky hookers doing their utmost to get out of the business.

In India, like most other countries, being a sex worker is a dangerous occupation. Laxmi (Deshpande) has been one for awhile. She works for a pimp named Mhatre (Limaye) for whom she is mainly an administrator although she hangs out on the streets with the other girls. She rarely turns tricks herself however. One night, Mhatre brings a Bengali woman named Putul (Chakraborty) into the fold and instructs Laxmi to show her the ropes. Instantly Putul – whom Laxmi soon dubs Tikli – annoys the older woman. Tikli has a mouth that often gets her into trouble, and as free-spirited as she appears to be she has a hair-trigger temper as well.

Tikli soon notices that the women are treated horribly by Mhatre and his security man JT. When the somewhat incompetent security man doesn’t pick up the phone when she’s frantically calling for help, she extricates herself from a potentially horrible situation with a hidden knife and heads back to the street corner to kick the man who was supposed to be protecting her in the gonads.

Laxmi is horrified and is certain that this will bring the wrath of Mhatre down on her and it does; he arranges for the girls to be detained at the local police station where a group of corrupt cops take turns raping Tikli. Eventually she comes home, grim-faced and Laxmi begins to feel some sympathy for her, even though she doesn’t like her much. Mhatre has forced Tikli to live with Laxmi and Tikli snores and farts and smokes, all of which annoy Laxmi.

But Tikli has ideas that frighten Laxmi, like the revolutionary thought that if the girls are not getting protection anyway that there’s no use for the pimp or his muscle so they may as well work for themselves. That means paying a percentage of their earnings to the local crime lord who is the boss of Mhatre, but if they can get the girls to pool their earnings and work together, the plan might just work. Most of Mhatre’s stable goes with Tikli especially when Laxmi supports the plan although one intransigent veteran hooker named Manda (Pillai) refuses. More and more girls begin to defect to the gang of prostitutes who now call themselves the Tikli and Laxmi Bomb gang. They come up with an ingenious loyalty program to lure and keep repeat customers.

All of this gets the attention of their old boss who is none too pleased with the willful Tikli or the girls in the gang. Things begin to get more and more serious as Mhatre and his men launch escalating reprisals but Tikli and Laxmi are determined to beat the system but with the system so stacked against them can they prevail?

First-time director Kripalani is going for authenticity, filming on the mean streets of Mumbai and often in subdued lighting. That makes the picture dark and murky at times but it also feels like you’re right there on the streets with them. Kripalani also wrote the novel the movie is based on and while the story is fictional it has the ring of the real to it, making the story and characters believable in ways other narrative features can’t compare to.

I don’t know how much research was done into the lives of these ladies but it feels like there was a lot. The movie doesn’t gloss over anything, from the vulnerability to physical attacks that sex workers around the world are subject to, to the camaraderie – and occasional rivalry – the girls have. I don’t know if there is a drug problem among Indian prostitutes – many prostitutes in the States use alcohol and recreational drugs to help them deal with the psychological ramifications of their job – but it isn’t really depicted her. The ladies all smoke and love to go to clubs to dance; occasionally they even drink but there isn’t a lot of that going on in the movie.

Chakraborty is absolutely delightful as the spunky Tikli and Deshpande gives a multi-layered performance as Laxmi. It was the latter character who intrigued me more; she doesn’t dress as seductively as her fellow sex workers, rarely wears make-up and comes off almost tomboyish but she is serenely beautiful in her own way.

Despite the sexual subject there’s no overt nudity or at least nothing is shown beyond bare shoulders and legs. The sexuality isn’t what I’d call gratuitous here; it is handled as matter-of-factly as the women themselves would normally. In a lot of ways I thought of this film as a kind of Norma Rae for sex workers and you wouldn’t be far off the mark.

The movie is just a shade under three hours long so this isn’t a movie you get into lightly. It requires a commitment of time and patience and American audiences are notorious about lacking both. The movie isn’t generally available yet in the States for streaming purposes and continues to make the rounds on the Asian festival circuit but the producers haven’t ruled out appearances in American festivals or on streaming services here in the States. This is very different than what Americans tend to think of as Indian films; American audiences are only just discovering that Indian films are as diverse and as high-quality as the Sub-Continent itself and this particular film is one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any serious lover of all things cinematic.

REASONS TO GO: A realistic look at the plight of sex workers. The score has a bluesy edge that is unexpected and welcome.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the acting is a little rough around the edges. The movie might be a little bit too long for attention-challenged American audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity as well as rape – the latter mainly implied rather than depicted graphically.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed on street corners in Mumbai largely used by sex workers and their clients.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lipstick Under My Burkha
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Blade of the Immortal

Sunset Park (2017)


You’ve got to be tough to make it in Sunset Park.

(2017) Sports Drama (108 Media) Michael Trevino, Robert Miano, Sam Douglas, Jamie Choi, Vladimir Versailles, John Bianco, Nolan Lyons, Matt Wood, Michael T. Weiss, Eric Arriola, Amyrh Harris, Christopher M. Elassad, Robert Morgan, Khalil Maasi, Rocco Rozzotti, Ras Enoch McCurdie, Kaitlin Mesh, Silvia Spross, Stephanie Thiel, Alanna Blair. Directed by Jason Sarrey

 

Life is hard enough; in some places, it’s even harder. In Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, there are more than the usual obstacles.

Duane (Weiss) is a degenerate gambler and an alcoholic who has been battered by life and is not strong enough to take ownership of his own mistakes. His wife died young leaving him with a son (Lyons) he barely knows. He lives with his dad, Gramps Joe (Miano) who was once a Golden Gloves champion. When Duane gets in deep (to the tune of six figures) to the mob, he does what you’d expect someone like him to do – he cuts and runs leaving Joe to raise his kid and the mobster, Sledge (Douglas) is only too happy to transfer the debt to Joe. After all, why chase someone when you can get the money right at home?

Gino (Trevino), the son, grows up to be a talented fighter in his own right. Gramps sends him to be trained by local legend Caelin Roche (Morgan) but times are tough. Rents are going up, Gramps had to go back to work to meet the payment schedule that Sledge set him with to pay Duane’s debt and the economic downturn has caused Gramps’ hours to be slashed. Gino’s good friend Rajon (Versailles) figures Gino can make bank in the underground boxing scene. In the meantime, Sledge has taken notice of Gino’s talents and means to own his career – which would on the plus side wipe out the crippling debt for Duane’s marker but of course would potentially warp Gino’s soul after all the effort Gramps put in to raise Gino to be a good man.

By this time Gino has struck up a romance with Jessica (Choi) but Sledge and his goon Carlo (Bianco) are not willing to take no for an answer – so when Gramps refuses to give them Gino’s career, they set out to make Gino an offer he can’t refuse. Gino will be forced to fight for those he loves in a battle he can’t afford to lose but will he be able to do what it takes to win a life or death fight?

If you’ve seen most boxing movies involving a promising fighter who the mob wants to own and corrupt, then you’ve seen this movie. It doesn’t really add anything new to the mix. Trevino, best known for The Vampire Diaries, does a fair to middling job in the lead but I’m not sure he’s ready for big screen leads just yet.

The boxing sequences quite frankly are atrocious. The actors plainly look like they don’t know what to do and the punches look fake. The dialogue sounds a little clunky as well although the actors try gamely to make it sound natural.

Really, the main failing of the movie here is that there is a lack of energy. I’m not sure if it’s the fault of the actors, the director, the editor or the writer – most likely it’s a combination of all of the above. Still, there’s nothing really for the viewer to hang their hat on and get involved in the story. There are plenty of movies that have taken this story and made it compelling; Sunset Park fails to do that.

REASONS TO GO: The tone is properly gritty for the material.
REASONS TO STAY: The boxing sequences are unconvincing. The film could use an infusion of energy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, a bit of profanity and a scene of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sunset Park is the first full-length feature film for Sarrey.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fighter
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Brigsby Bear

D-love


Elena Beuca wonders where it all went wrong.

(2017) Drama (Cranky Pants) Elena Beuca, Dave Rogers, Ditlev Darmakaya, Billy Howerdel, Christine Scott Bennett, Jessica Boss, Christine Fazzino, Jason Esposito, Alessio Di Giambattista, Michael Monks, Tracey Graves, Giorgio Di Vincenzo, Victoria Palma, Charley Rossman, Angel Villareal, Tim Astor, Ray Ionita, Kerry McGrath. Directed by Elena Beuca

 

It is not easy being married. It’s a lot of work and that’s just if things remain relatively stable. Throw in some personal tragedies – the death of loved ones for instance – and it becomes positively herculean.

Dave (Rogers) and Stefania (Beuca) are returning from a vacation holiday that was meant to rekindle the passion between them but had been woefully unsuccessful. Dave has been wallowing in an unemployed alcoholic haze for more than a year after both of his parents had died within a few months of one another. Stefania had also lost a loved one – her older brother before he had even turned 40 – and was supporting the couple at a job where her bitchy boss Annie (Fazzino) torments her and insults her in what would be an HR specialist’s nightmare. She also wants to have a child but the attempts so far had been unsuccessful although one has to wonder why anyone would want to bring in a child to an environment of constant bickering and belittling.

At the airport on the return home the couple is exhausted and annoyed. The luggage has been lost including Dave’s wallet which included the parking tag to go pick up their car. Stefania is on the far side of enough at this point when they are approached by a handsome long-haired Dane named Ditlev (Darmakaya) who asks for a ride “East.” It’s a little vague but he seems nice enough and Dave, over Stefania’s objections is inclined to give it to him.

When it turns out that there are no buses running to Sedona (where it turns out he wants to go – Burning Man, to be exact) until the next afternoon, Dave offers to let Ditlev crash overnight at their place. However, Dave is having a real hard time pronouncing the Dane’s name so he takes to calling him D-love, which in turn amuses the young Dane. In return, Ditlev gives Dave some yoga lessons and imparts his philosophy about living with love in the moment. He offers to help Dave do some home repair projects that Dave has been avoiding for some time and that Stefania has been nagging him to do. When Stefania comes home from another abusive day at work, she is shocked to find Ditlev still there – and the home repair projects almost all done. She is frightened of being robbed and/or murdered by the stranger but as time goes by she begins to at least accept his presence. In turn Dave is beginning to return to the man he was before his parents died. He has resumed cooking – something he delighted in doing with his dad but had given up on when his dad passed.

Dave is definitely coming out of his funk thanks to the hunky Danish hippie guest but Stefania is reaching a crisis. Things at work are going from bad to worse, and her doctor has discovered something that is absolutely heartbreaking. To make matters worse, the camera that was the last gift to Stefania from her late brother has disappeared and she suspects that D-love has stolen it. She is ready to give up on her life, and certainly on her marriage.

Rogers wrote the film based on events within his own real-life marriage to Beuca who directed the film and took super-8 footage in her native Romania to supplement the L.A.-shot majority of the film. Darmakaya really did approach them at LAX and stay with them briefly. Unlike the married couple, Darmakaya isn’t a professional actor and his performance is a bit wooden but that’s okay; he really is playing something of an archetype – the benevolent stranger. Two of them show up in the film.

There is an authentic feeling to the marital problems Stefania and Dave are experiencing which is no doubt a function of the ones they faced in real life. That helps the movie resonate much more than artificial marital crises in a variety of rom-coms ever could. While Ditlev’s new age-y pronouncements and advice sometimes feel a bit like the love child of an inspirational meme and a Stewart Smalley affirmation, one gets the sense that they are at least heartfelt albeit some might find them preachy.

Despite this being based on real life, the plot feels a bit predictable and the ending a trifle forced. I guess from a certain light it’s a bit comforting that life really does imitate the movies. Beuca and Rogers are actually fine actors although at times their emotional portrayals tend to be somewhat over-the-top. They could have done with a bit more subtlety in their performances.

This is just now getting a limited theatrical run starting at the Laemmle 7 in North Hollywood although the film has spent most of the year on the festival circuit where it has been very well-received, winning numerous awards. Keep an eye out for it at your local arthouse or possibly on your favorite streaming channel in the coming months.

REASONS TO GO: This is an accurate portrayal of a marriage falling apart. There are some really good moments here.
REASONS TO STAY: Emotionally, the movie is a little bit overwrought. The writing tends to be a bit on the preachy side.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a lot of adult themes as well as some profanity and a scene of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Howerdel was a founding member of A Perfect Circle and composed the score for the film as well as playing Sean, Dave’s best friend.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Man Who Came to Dinner
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Valerian and the City of 1,000 Planets

Megan Leavey


Megan and Rex are on the job.

(2017) True Life War Drama (Bleecker Street) Kate Mara, Tom Felton, Bradley Whitford, Geraldine James, Common, Edie Falco, Will Patton, Ramon Rodriguez, Shannon Tarbet, Miguel Gomez, Jonathan Howard, George Webster, Corey Johnson, Sam Keeley, Catherine Dyer, Melina Matthews, Jonah Bowling, Parker Sawyers, Victoria Budkey. Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite

 

We all know who man’s best friend is; the loyal and beloved canine. Dogs not only act as companions when we get home from work, they also work with us as service dogs, drug sniffing dogs and in the military, bomb-sniffing dogs. Their sensitive noses can detect things the human nose can’t.

If you told this to Megan Leavey (Mara) back in 2000, she likely wouldn’t have cared. Adrift in a fog of alcohol and grief for her childhood best friend who had recently passed away due to a drug overdose, she lives with her mother (Falco) who cheated on Megan’s dad Bob (Whitford) with his former best friend (Patton), a chronically unemployed drunk whom Megan is well on the way to emulating. Directionless, she decides to join the Marines mainly to get out of a town that she sees no future for herself in.

As anyone who has been in the military will tell you, your problems follow you into the armed forces after you enlist. Megan gets wasted while off-duty and does something unmentionable, getting her in hot water again. As punishment, she is sent to clean out the dog kennels where the dogs who are being trained to sniff out bombs are being trained with their handlers.

Megan has trouble relating to people but for some reason the relationship between the handlers and their dogs – personified by Andrew Dean (Felton), a legend in the Corps and an unusually compassionate guy who helps Megan find her way. After pestering Gunny (Common), the commander of the K9 training unit, to get accepted into the K9 unit, she is finally given a dog to train – Rex, a German Shepherd who has bitten his former trainer hard enough to break his arm. Rex is aggressive, impulsive and difficult to control; like Megan I suppose it could be said he has trouble relating to people. The two outsiders slowly bond and eventually get shipped out to Iraq.

Megan, a tiny woman, gets little respect from her fellow handlers and from the soldiers whose lives she is to protect; the Marines is about as patriarchal an organization as you’re likely to find but Megan and Rex become very proficient at what they do, saving hundreds of lives before one mission in which….well, you’re going to have to watch the movie to find out.

Some time passes and Megan has been discharged from the Corps, returning to civilian life and once again she’s having difficulty relating to people. However this time she is coping with PTSD, understandable considering the high-stress job she did for the Corps overseas. She has pushed just about everyone in her life away from her, including Matt Morales (Rodriguez), a fellow handler whom she had been developing a relationship with in the Corps. Only her dad Bob remains and when a cause she can believe in is given to her, with her dad’s gentle prodding Megan steps back into life and fights as hard as she did not only in Iraq but to get to Iraq.

In many ways, this is like a Hollywood movie – and of course, it is a Hollywood movie – but the story is based on actual events. There is a real Megan Leavey (she appears in pictures during the end credits) and a real Rex. I don’t know if Mara captured the real Megan Leavey but she delivers a well-rounded performance that while not exceptional is enough to carry the movie nicely. Mara sometimes gets overshadowed by her sister Rooney but she’s a very talented actress in her own right who just needs the right role to really break out into the next level. This isn’t it but hopefully it will lead her to roles that can get her there.

Common is rapidly going from rapper slash actor to actor slash rapper; he channels Louis Gossett Jr. a little too much here (see An Officer and a Gentleman) but if I was going to have any actor channel Gossett, it would be Common. He has the military bearing to carry the role off; it surprises me somewhat that he didn’t have military experience himself or come from a military family. Just good acting I suppose but that tells me that the rapper is more than just a handsome guy who can rap; he is likely to have some terrific possibly Oscar-worthy performances in his future.

The best parts of the movie take place in Iraq; there is a great deal of tension throughout those sequences and even in the down time between missions we can see Megan opening up to Morales and letting him in. Before that however, the movie drags quite a bit; it feels like we’re waiting for something to happen but the filmmakers first have to go through the motion of getting us from point A to point B with stops at A.1, A.2, A.3 etc. etc. It’s a little too extended for my taste and I wish they could have condensed that part of the movie somewhat.

Cowperthwaite is best known for her documentary Blackfish which is also animal-centric. I’m a dog person so it was easy for me to get hooked on this movie; fellow dog lovers will also have the same ease in getting into the film. Film buffs might find this a bit overly sentimental but I suppose it can’t be helped; the subject matter revolves around the bond between Marine and dog and the reliance each has upon the other. It’s a strong message and while I don’t think that this movie necessarily presented it in the strongest light, it does a good enough job that make it worth seeking out among all the big budget summer blockbusters that dominate the cinematic landscape this time of year.

REASONS TO GO: The in-country sequences are the best in the film. The dogs are terrific.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is pure Hollywood (in a negative way). Too much time is spent waiting for things to happen; much of the training sequences could have been lopped off.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some war violence, profanity, a little bit of sensuality and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Mara and the real Megan Leavey grew up in the suburbs of New York City.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Max
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
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