Concussion


The Fresh Prince of Pittsburgh.

The Fresh Prince of Pittsburgh.

(2015) True Life Drama (Columbia) Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Morse, Arliss Howard, Mike O’Malley, Eddie Marsan, Hill Harper, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Stephen Moyer, Richard T. Jones, Paul Reiser, Luke Wilson, Sara Lindsey, Matthew Willig, Bitsie Tulloch, Kevin Jiggetts, Gary Grubbs, Joni Bovill. Directed by Peter Landesman

Football is our modern coliseum and the players our modern gladiators. They are admired, respected and beloved pretty much throughout the United States. When a character here says that the NFL “owns a day of the week – it used to belong to religion, but now it’s theirs,” he isn’t kidding. Football is a mania and nearly a religion itself.

But the game takes a toll. It is a game of violence, when behemoths smash and crash into each other like meteors in the asteroid belt. Helmets go flying, players wobble off, tottering on their cleats and sometimes, people get concussions. However, the National Football League takes precautions, don’t they?

When Hall of Fame center Mike Webster (Morse) dies unexpectedly at the age of 50, the city of Pittsburgh mourns. That he died homeless and some would whisper crazy is glossed over in the torrents of grief marking the loss of the city’s warrior. When it comes time to autopsy the body, the task is given to Bennet Omalu (Smith), a Nigerian immigrant who happens to be the forensic pathologist on duty at the Allegheny County Morgue.

What Omalu sees puzzles him. Apparently, Webster was in excellent shape. There were no toxins in his body that would explain his heart just stopping, or his erratic behavior in the years prior to his death. Why is this man dead, wondered Omalu although an antagonistic colleague (O’Malley) urges him to wrap it up. However, Omalu can’t do that. He orders expensive tests – that he pays for himself – to look into the why of Webster’s demise. What he finds is shocking.

Apparently repeated blows to the head can cause trauma that eventually causes early dementia, excruciating headaches, personality changes and suicidal tendencies. That condition is called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (or CTE for short) and as he passes on his findings to his sympathetic boss Cyril Wecht (Brooks), other players like Dave Duerson (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Andre Waters (Jones) and Justin Strzelczyk (Willig) begin to show signs of the same problem.

When Omalu takes his findings public, at first the NFL ignores them but as the good doctor persists to the point where the issue can’t be ignored, they go on the offensive and suddenly Omalu’s competency as a doctor is question as well as his status as an immigrant. In the midst of building a life in America with his new Kenyan wife Prema (Mbatha-Raw), his American dream may be turning into an American nightmare.

In some ways this is a very important story. The safety of the players should be of paramount importance to the league (you would think) as the players are their commodity. However, the NFL chose to fight against the safety of their player, reasoning that these findings could kill the game altogether. Maybe the game should be killed in that case – no game is worth dying for. I’m sure many readers will find that sacrilegious.

However, Landesman chooses to frame it in the love story between Prema and Omalu and then they draw Prema up as support girlfriend 101, with very little character to the character. She’s so bland that the only reason you can see Omalu falling in love is because Mbatha-Raw is so extraordinarily beautiful. However, the blandness isn’t Mbatha-Raw’s fault – she’s proven herself an outstanding actress. The fault is of the writers who chose to put most of their efforts into Omalu but also the male supporting characters, like Dr. Julian Bailes (Baldwin), a former Steeler team physician who becomes one of Omalu’s staunchest allies, and Dr. Wecht, whom Brooks imbues with a kind of menschiness, as New York Daily News reviewer Allen Salkin so aptly put it.

This is Smith’s movie however and he runs with it like Adrian Peterson through the secondary. Smith is often underrated as an actor because of his laid-back charm and his Fresh Prince grin. One forgets that he has two Oscar nominations (for Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness) and some truly memorable performances in other movies. While his filmography of late hasn’t had the kind of success that he’s used to, he still has skills and he could very well get his third Oscar nomination for this performance.

&The movie doesn’t have the emotional punch that it probably should have, although being a non-football fan it might not resonate with me as much as it might. However, parents whose kids want to get into the game would do well to look into CTE and ways of preventing it (there are some excellent pads out there that protect players from concussions in the brain but also in the heart). The NFL certainly comes off here as a somewhat indifferent corporate entity more interested in maintaining the profits rather than the player’s long-term safety. It makes me wonder how the movie got permission to show the logos of the various teams and helmets on-camera and use game footage of NFL games. However, this is a movie in which the performance is better than the overall film. That’s not the last time you’ll hear that particular analysis of a film this holiday season.

REASONS TO GO: One of Smith’s best performances. An important issue for any fan or parent of a player.
REASONS TO STAY: Pedestrian in places. Wastes Mbatha-Raw.
FAMILY VALUES: Some disturbing images and harsh language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Matthew Willig, who plays Steeler defender Justin Strzelczyk in the movie, played in the National Football League for 14 years for among others, the Jets, Packers, Niners, Panthers and Rams (twice).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/2/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Imitation Game
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Emperor’s New Clothes

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The Park Bench


It's the awkward silences that bring us closer together.

It’s the awkward silences that bring us closer together.

(2015) Romance (Cake and Ice Cream/Galaim Vivendi) Walter Perez, Nicole Hayden, Stella Maeve, John Prosky, Brian Mulligan, Dustin Fitzsimons, Beau Bonness, Francisco Ovalle, Angel Arial, Madison Browning, Mackenzie Browning, Araceli Cesar, Jerry Franco, Ella Raziel, Stephen Brown, Carlene Moore. Directed by Ann LeSchander

As we build the relationship with the person we love, little things may take on special meaning to us. It could be a song we listened to regularly, as in the case of my wife and I. It could be a certain meal that you ate often as you were courting. Or it could be a place that takes on a certain importance in the process of falling in love.

Mateo (Perez) is the son of Mexican immigrants who is trying to navigate his way through college. He is holding on by his fingernails, only able to attend due to the scholarships he has obtained, scholarships that are now imperiled because he is failing English Literature. Even with that, he is forced to work a series of odd jobs in order to pay for schooling and of course to support himself.

Emily (Hayden) is getting ready to defend her Masters thesis in Library Science. She is also getting ready to marry Eddie (Fitzsimons), a pleasant young man who is studying to be a pharmacist. Her life is progressing upon the set course that she has planned for it; a good career, a stable husband who can provide for her, eventually a family and a suburban home.

The two are meeting at a park bench because Mateo needs a tutor and Emily has drawn his name from the student tutoring service. At first they don’t seem to be very compatible; Mateo’s schedule can be haphazard and Emily is a bit uptight about being on-time to tutoring sessions for the three times a week they need to meet. While the two have reservations about one another, eventually they decide to give it a go.

Emily turns out to be a really good tutor, just as she said she was. But she is learning a lot from Mateo as well; about his culture, about his viewpoint of the world (the viewpoint of the son of illegal immigrants). She is pleasantly surprised by the delicious food that Mateo’s mom cooks for him (a scene in which she tries ceviche for the first time is priceless).

The regular tutoring sessions at the same park bench turn out to be confessionals for the both of them as they get to know each other better. And as you can imagine, their feelings for each other begin to deepen into something else. Can the uptight Emily get past her need for stability to embrace love for its own sake?

LeSchander has crafted a very efficient but effective romance – I wouldn’t quite call this a comedy although there are some funny moments. Essentially this is the most cost-effective movie I think I’ve ever seen. The whole movie is set at a single park bench in a lovely glade (I wish I could find out which park this was filmed at; I’d love to go there someday). The scenes are delineated by framing devices and flashbacks and animations enhance the story.

The animations seemed a bit unnecessary to me but I can understand why they’re there. Mostly, this movie is all conversation and filming a conversation can be a very static enterprise indeed. While the two leads are attractive and do their jobs well, nobody wants to see a picture about talking heads. Unless it’s the Talking Heads, of course.

Bad musical puns on my part aside, there is a pleasantness to the movie that is quite appealing. Watching it is like sitting in a park yourself on a lovely warm spring day, watching life happen around you with the occasional odd lost birdwatcher wandering into frame. In that sense, this is a movie that tends to create the warm fuzzies, much like a beautiful spring day can.

It’s not without its faults. The ending seems a bit out of character, particularly for Emily. Hayden does a good job of taking a character who could easily be unlikable and making her at least sympathetic. Perez, on the other hand, has a good deal of charisma. His charm, good looks and screen presence could take him much further in the business with a little bit of luck (and an aggressive agent). At times, the spark between the two of them was less intense than I would have liked but then again, this is a fairly low-key endeavor to begin with and some sparks smolder slowly rather than ignite quickly.

This is very much the kind of movie that I have a soft spot for. It charms without being smarmy and tells its story well. LeSchander seems very confident behind the camera and she prioritizes the right things. This isn’t a movie that is going to make critics go wild with praise but it’s the kind of movie to build a career on. I liked it a lot and can recommend it as the lovely diversion that it is.

REASONS TO GO: Attractive leads. Perez has some screen magnetism. Charming. Efficiently made.
REASONS TO STAY: More of a collection of vignettes at times. Could have used a tiny bit more structure. Ending comes out of left field. Spark not there.
FAMILY VALUES: Pretty much suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is LeSchander’s first full-length feature. Previously she has directed several short films.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes No score yet. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :One Day
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: 5 Flights Up

My Life in China


Father knows best.

Father knows best.

(2014) Documentary (Killer Bunny) Yau King Eng, Kenneth Eng. Directed by Kenneth Eng

Florida Film Festival 2015

Everyone comes from somewhere and nowhere is that more true than the United States. Even the Native Americans migrated over the land bridge from Asia to get here. All of us have a history that begins somewhere else.

Yau King Eng’s story began in China where he grew up under a repressive communist regime. In 1966, he made the decision to leave his impoverished village, his beloved family and everything familiar in his life to make a new and better life for himself in America. The journey was a dangerous one, involving a swim from the mainland to Macau and avoiding Chinese soldiers who weren’t above killing anyone who had the gall to want to leave.

But leave he did and to Boston he did go. At first, finding work was difficult but like many Chinese immigrants he found work in Chinese restaurants, washing dishes and sweeping floors. He worked two and sometimes more jobs, trying to make a better life for his family, eventually saving up enough to buy  a restaurant of his own.

Unfortunately, the American dream didn’t work out the way he thought it would. The restaurant business is a capricious one and a difficult one to find success in. He didn’t find that success, and the restaurant went bankrupt. To this day he continues to work for others in the restaurant business, but deep down he considers himself a failure because his restaurant didn’t make it.

In the meantime, China has prospered and the economic situation there is in many ways better than it is here. Yau decided that he would live the rest of his life out in the land where he was born, but first he would pay it a visit to make sure that this decision was a sound one. His visit back home, to the places that mattered to him, would be chronicled by his son Kenneth, a documentary filmmaker. The two of them together would experience modern China – Kenneth through fresh eyes, his father through the eyes of 1966. Their varying perspectives don’t really constitute the subject here; rather, it is more a journey of discovery for Kenneth as the tales of his father’s struggles in his homeland come to life and he develops a new perspective – and a new respect – for his dad.

Some of the film is quite heartwarming as we witness father and son develop new and stronger bonds between them. Some of the film is a bit harrowing as we are treated to the story of Yau King Eng’s defection and the courage and perseverance it took for him to make the journey. Much of the film, however, is a bit like watching home movies as we see relatives and friends gather, some of whom have found success and even wealth at home, another dagger in the heart of the prodigal son who left. The old men, smoking in kitchens while the women prepare feasts of welcoming, the elders reminiscing about times gone by. In short, very much what happens in YOUR living room when an out-of-town relative visits.

The home movie feel I think is deliberate as Eng not only makes his father’s story an individual one, but connects his family’s story with our own. Yes, ostensibly Eng is trying to tell a singular story but what makes this film successful is that he is able to relate much of it to our own situations, our own families, our own lives.

This isn’t the kind of movie that trumpets thunderous anthems from mountaintops (although the music in the film is quite beautiful), but rather quietly works its way into our hearts and finds the common ground that binds us all. Every family has stories; watching this movie prompting me to ask my mom about hers. Yes, I’m a child of immigrants as well so the movie hit home a lot closer than it might those who are farther removed from their own family’s immigrant experience. Even so, it is the stories of our mothers and fathers that are part of our own stories; understanding those stories help us understand who we are and where we’re from. For that alone, this is must-see viewing. While the movie is just starting to show up on the festival circuit, hopefully it’ll soon play at a film festival near you, or eventually make it onto a broadcast medium. I sure hope so; I’d love to see this movie again.

REASONS TO GO: Nicely illustrates the dichotomy of culture in China. Tells a moving and compelling story. Heartwarming.
REASONS TO STAY: Has a bit of a home movie feel to it, although I think that’s appropriate.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all members of the family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Eng’s last feature-length film, Kokoyaku: High School Baseball received an airing on PBS’ POV series.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Romantico
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Infini

The Reluctant Fundamentalist


Which one will blink first?

Which one will blink first?

(2012) Drama (IFC) Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland, Liev Schreiber, Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, Martin Donovan, Nelsan Ellis, Haluk Bilginer, Meesha Shafi, Imaad Shah, Chris Smith, Ashwath Batt, Sarah Quinn, Chandrachur Singh, Adil Hussain, Ali Sethi, Deepti Datt, Gary Richardson, Victor Slezak, Ashlyn Henson, Cait Johnson. Directed by Mira Nair

What creates a terrorist? How does one go from being a devout member of one’s religion to a wild-eyed fanatic willing to kill – and die – for his/her faith?

After an American professor (Richardson) is kidnapped after attending a movie in Lahore, Pakistan, a colleague of his at the university, Changez Khan (Ahmed) is interviewed by journalist Bobby Lincoln (Schreiber). Changez has fallen under suspicion of being connected to a terrorist group mainly based on his anti-American rhetoric and firebrand speeches in the classroom  He’d also met with a notorious terrorist cell leader

However,  Changez had started out as a rapidly pro-American, a big believer in the American dream. Born in Lahore to a poet (Puri) and a housewife (Azmi) who had been well-to-do at one time but who had blown through the money they had as poetry even in Pakistan isn’t a job that brings in high earnings. Changez gets a scholarship to Princeton and when he graduates is pegged by Jim Cross (Sutherland) to be a gifted evaluator of business worth which makes him a valuable commodity with a bright future at Underwood Samson who evaluate the value of companies and come up with ways to increase that value. It’s a pretty lucrative field and Changez looks to be on the fast track to success.

As he banters with his friends Wainwright (Ellis), Clea (Quinn) and Rizzo (Smith), Changez falls for Erica (Hudson), the artistic niece of  Underwood Samson’s CEO. It isn’t long before they move in together, although Erica has a deep melancholy – her previous boyfriend had died in a car accident and she’s still grieving. Even though Changez moves slowly and gives her as much leeway as she wants and she clearly has feelings for him, she still feels like she’s cheating on her dead lover.

Everything changes though when the Twin Towers come down on 9/11. Changez is in Manila on business when it happens and when he finally comes home, he is stripped and forced to undergo a humiliating body cavity search. People begin to view Changez with suspicion, particularly now that he’s sporting a beard to reconnect with his Pakistani roots. He is growing more and more distant from his family which hits him hard when he goes home for his sister Bina’s (Shafi) wedding.

The final straw is when he goes to Turkey to evaluate a publishing company that one of Underhill Samson’s clients had just purchased. Even though the company had done much to promulgate Turkish culture and that of their neighbors (Changez’ dad had even had a book of his poems published there) the numbers point to liquidating the assets and shuttering the doors. Changez has an epiphany and refuses to do it. He quits his job and returns home, finding a job teaching.

So now things in Lahore are a powderkeg as American CIA and local police are detaining and arresting students at the University and conducting random searches. Even Changez’ family has received a visit of the state police simply because of their association with him. It won’t take much for this powderkeg to blow. So how involved is Changez with the kidnapping. Had his treatment in America paved the way for his conversion into jihadism? Or is he simply an innocent victim of circumstance?

Nair, who has on her resume some impressive efforts (not the least of which are Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake) has another one to add to that list. Based on a novel by Mohsin Hamid that is largely a monologue by Changez, she utilizes some brilliant cinematography and a terrific cast to explore the complex themes of the book.

Changez is largely a cypher. On the surface he seems a gentle, kind soul who adheres to non-violence but in practice he spent his Wall Street career practicing a kind of economic violence. While he eventually turns away from it, there is that sense that he is blaming America for allowing him to willingly participate in an admittedly immoral career. He made his choices but took no responsibility for them even after he quit. In that sense, Changez is unlikable and I personally find it a bit refreshing to have a character who turns a blind eye towards his own imperfections – most of us are like that.

Ahmed, a Pakistani-born British rapper and actor has a great deal of charisma and reminds me of a young Oded Fehr in looks and manner. He holds his own in his scenes with Schreiber who is an excellent actor so it’s no small feat. Their scenes are the most compelling in the film and it is their confrontation that provides the essence of the film.

Sutherland and Puri do great work in supporting roles. Hudson, who is also capable of strong roles, kind of gets a little lost here – it could be that she plays her character, who is weak and clings to her grief like Linus and his security blanket, too well. There are never the kind of sparks between her and Ahmed that I would have liked to have seen although that possibly was deliberate on Nair’s part. However, a good deal of time is spent on the relationship between Erica and Changez and quite frankly that is the weakest part of the story.

The film’s climax is powerful as we are left to ponder whether we are creating our own enemies out of our own arrogance and insensitivity, which I think is clearly the case. If so, then we come by that hatred honestly but we refuse to acknowledge it, one more reason for people in other countries to despise us. It isn’t until the final five minutes of the film that we discover where Changez’ sympathies lie and whether or not he is involved in the kidnapping. In a way it’s almost a moot point; ultimately this isn’t about who Changez is. It’s about who we are.

REASONS TO GO: Thought-provoking and balanced. Fine performances by Ahmed, Sutherland, Schreiber, Puri and Ellis.

REASONS TO STAY: The film is far more powerful when focusing on Changez’ conflicting feelings about America than on his relationship with Erica.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a fair amount of swearing, some violence and a bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hudson was initially unable to do the film because she was pregnant at the time that shooting was scheduled to take place. When shooting was delayed until after she had her baby, Hudson was able to take the role.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 55% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Syriana

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Rush (2013)

Pain and Gain


Mark Wahlberg is surrounded by chaos.

Mark Wahlberg is surrounded by chaos.

(2013) Action Comedy (Paramount) Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Ed Harris, Tony Shalhoub, Rebel Wilson, Rob Corddry, Bar Paly, Ken Jeong, Michael Rispoli, Keili Lefkovitz, Emily Rutherfurd, Larry Hankin, Tony Plana, Peter Stormare, Vivi Pineda, Ken Clement, Yolanthe Cabau, Persi Caputo. Directed by Michael Bay.

We all have some sort of version of the American dream – success, and the rewards that come with it. Not all of us have the tools to achieve it on our own, however – particular in these rough times when achievement is seemingly less attainable than it’s ever been.

Daniel Lugo (Wahlberg), a body builder in Miami, is a big believer in physical fitness. In fact, the only thing he believes in more than keeping in shape is the aforementioned American dream. He believes that he deserves it. But working at it isn’t always easy. He’s charming and is able to draw lots of new customers – younger customers – to Sun Gym, which pleases owner John Mese (Corddry).

But Lugo isn’t pleased. He’s frankly tired of building up the bodies of wealthy douchebags like Victor Kershaw (Shalhoub), one of the most unlikable people…well, ever (see below). His protégé Adrian Doorbal (Mackie) concurs. Adrian has to work at a taco joint in addition to his full-time job at the gym in order to make ends meet. Adrian also has erectile dysfunction, which requires some expensive treatments. A sympathetic nurse (Wilson) at the clinic hits it off with Adrian.

Lugo wants his share and he thinks Kershaw has too much as it is. In fact, he despises Kershaw. He decides that he is going to take everything Kershaw has. His plan? Kidnap him, torture him and get him to sign his assets over to Lugo and his crew. But they’re going to need a third partner and they find it in Paul Doyle (Johnson), an ex-con who found Jesus and is trying to stay on the straight and narrow but soon finds that he can’t afford the straight and narrow.

So these three knuckleheads, roughly on the same intellectual level as the Three Stooges, go about pulling off their crime of the century. They kidnap Kershaw who’s so unlikable and such a horrible human being that nobody reports him missing even though he’s gone for weeks.

They finally get him to sign but typically they mess things up. Adrian blows all of his share on a house which he pays for in cash (the realtor, when asked about the unusualness of this snaps “He’s black. I figured he was a rapper, an athlete”), leaving him with an operation to get his erectile issues resolved to pay for. Paul falls off the wagon like it was the Brooklyn Bridge and puts almost all of his share up his nose. They decide to go for one more score.

Meanwhile, Kershaw has seen the police who react with absolute disbelief. Nobody believes him – except retired cop and private eye Ed DuBois (Harris). DuBois knows what he’s doing and it won’t be long before these ee-dyots will mess up but he is concerned that others will get hurt before then. He doesn’t realize just how right he is.

This is one of those stories that is so bizarre that it has to be true, and it is – and apparently pretty dang close to the truth. There is one scene so outrageous, so unbelievably dumb near the end of the movie that Bay feels compelled to remind you that this is a true story, even though it is announced early on and often.

Bay is often criticized for his big overblown productions, and with a $20M budget (actually it’s a bit less than that) that won’t be the case here. In fact, I think this might be his best movie to date. It’s snappy, has a real terrific sense of humor. I laughed out loud as much here as I have at some of the better-known and better-received comedies in recent months.

Wahlberg and Johnson are two of the most engaging stars in Hollywood and both are quite willing to poke fun at themselves. They can utilize their huge likable personalities to offset the fact that they’re playing some truly despicable people who do way despicable things.

It doesn’t hurt that they have a particularly engaging cast. Shalhoub, best known for his portrayal of the neurotic Monk gets to play a real jerk and he does so with great relish. Harris, one of the steadiest and strongest actors in the business, plays it pretty straight but every so often you catch an expression that lets you know that DuBois is ready to bang his head against whatever wall might be available that these clowns might actually get away with it (although they didn’t in the end).

The crimes that are depicted here are horrible. I understand that some of the family members of those involved are somewhat upset that the story was essentially a comedy. In all fairness however I think that the tale is well-served by humor and it should be remembered that while the movie is funny, the suffering depicted is not and that the victims aren’t being made fun of. At least, I never got the sense they were – mostly the ineptness of the criminals is what is being held to scrutiny.

And that’s kind of the point here. Criminals by and large aren’t a bright lot – all Hollywood romanticizing to the contrary. For the most part, they’re effin’ dumb. Criminal jobs rarely are pulled off smoothly and more often than not, they wind up imprisoned. Pain & Gain isn’t really a cautionary tale so much as it is a reminder that while any idiot can get lucky, generally speaking their luck runs out pretty darn quickly.

REASONS TO GO: Surprisingly funny. Terrific performances from all the leads.

REASONS TO STAY: Maybe a bit too gruesome in spots. As things spiral out of control for the main characters towards the end of the movie, the sense of the surreal becomes a bit too much.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a lot of violence, some of it quite brutal and graphic. There’s also some nudity and sexual content, a fair amount of drug use and pretty much non-stop foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wahlberg bulked up to 213 lbs. for the film, essentially using his own body building supplements to do it. While his sons loved their new muscular dad, his daughters reportedly hated his over-the-top physique.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/7/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100; fairly mixed but trending towards the negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bank Job

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Informant

Made in China


Made in China

Jackson Kuehn and Dan Sumpter ignore the elephant in the room...or is it a beautiful Chinese woman?

(2009) Comedy (IFC) Jackson Kuehn, Dan Sumpter, Bronwyn Cornelius, Deng Juan, Syna Zhang. Directed by Judith Krant

 

The American Dream is no longer exclusively the property of Americans. The rest of the world has caught up with us in that regard. In fact, it could reasonably be said that given the global economic climate, the American Dream has become de facto the Chinese Dream.

Johnson (Kuehn) dreams of being a multi-millionaire. He has brilliant ideas in the novelty field and is well-versed on how ideas like the Slinky, the ant box and fake dog poop catapulted their inventors into wealth and privilege. Johnson has an idea for a household hygiene product that could do the same for him.

The trouble is, finding investors for his idea is no easy task. The American economy is in a shambles and people are not investing so much these days, so the would-be entrepreneur has to look farther afield for seed money. He sets up a meeting with a Chinese investor on Craig’s List and despite the objections of his family, gathers up his life savings and jets off to Shanghai.

When he is stood up by his prospective investor, he meets instead Magnus (Sumpter), a Brit who knows people and can actually help Johnson achieve his dreams. Johnson impresses him with his pluck and never say die attitude, but Magnus has his own agenda. Can Johnson’s product become the next Pet Rock? Or is Johnson’s naiveté going to sink his dreams like one?

Krant, who played Chang on the “Total Recall” TV series, approaches her first feature with a kind of gung-ho attitude. She takes her camera to locations not normally visited by Westerners in China’s most Western city, the back alleys and side streets. Whether or not she got permission to shoot there is likely problematic. It gives the movie a much more authentic look than had they just stuck to the iconic skyscrapers and amazing buildings that make up Shanghai’s distinctive skyline.

It also makes for seat-of-the-pants filmmaking. One gets the impression that some of the script was written to fit the circumstances. While the overall story is stuck to, certain scenes and vignettes seem to come completely out of left field as if Krant had exclaimed “this is an awesome place to film! let’s write a scene around it!”

Kuehn has a kind of offbeat charm and Sumpter has some charisma as well; the acting overall is more or less solid. Nothing here is going to impress one way or the other in that regard. What you will remember is the movie’s overall charm, it’s devotion to novelty items (and yes, there was certainly some research done into the subject) and its use of Shanghai locations very effectively. For a movie that is virtually unknown other than by those who saw it on the Festival circuit in 2009 and 2010, it’s surprisingly well-made and enjoyable.

WHY RENT THIS: Shot guerilla-style on the backstreets and skyscrapers of Shanghai. Endearing lead character.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: One gets the feeling it was written on the fly.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few sexual situations as well as some bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature at the 2009 SXSW Film Festival.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Mother of Tears