The Macaluso Sisters (Le sorelle Macaluso)


Facing the future together.

(2020) Drama (Charades) Viola Pusatieri, Eleonora De Luca, Simona Malato, Susanna Piraino, Serena Barone, Maria Rosaria Alati, Anita Pomario, Donatella Finocchiario, Ileana Rigano, Alissa Maria Orlando, Laura Giordani, Rosalba Bologna, Bruno Di Chiara. Directed by Emma Dante

 

One of life’s few universal truths is that we all experience both joy and sadness; triumph and loss. Those things mold us, shape us into the people we become; some through the memory of golden moments, other through the bittersweet acrimony of what might have been.

The five Macaluso sisters live in a shabby but spacious top-floor apartment in Palermo, Sicily. They keep doves in what had once been a playroom long ago, doves that they rent out for parties, weddings, magic shows and so on. The doves return back to their nest once they’ve finished with whatever spectacle they’ve been rented to. The sisters have been orphaned but don’t seem terribly traumatized by it.

Maria (De Luca) is the oldest and most responsible; she handles the business and for the most part keeps the lights on and the pantry from being bare. Next is vain Pinuccia (Pomario) who is all about make-up and flirting with boys. Then there’s bookish Lia (Piraino) who squabbles endlessly wth Pinuccia. Plump Katia (Orlando) is next and the youngest is Antonella (Pusatieri), who although five is ready to be a big girl. She begs Pinuccia to dab some lipstick on her mouth, which Pinuccia does in an affecting scene – the first of many.

Once the business is done for the day, Maria gets the girls ready for a day at the beach. Not being very well-off, they mostly walk there, finding a field full of plaster dinosaurs to play in, and once they get to the beach which is fronted by an exclusive club to which they are not invited, they lead the bathers in an impromptu dance. But the day’s joy turns to tragedy.

The rest of the film is all about how the sisters deal with that tragedy, and is told in three acts; the first is the day at the beach, the second takes place about twenty years later as the girls are now adult women, at which an adult Maria (Malato) has some startling news, and an adult Katia (Giordani) tries to convince the stubborn adult Lia (Barone) – in whose name the apartment is – to sell the crumbling apartment so that each of the sisters might get something to help them out financially.

The third and final act is the shortest and takes place when the sisters are elderly women. Throughout the apartment remains, growing shabbier as time passes. The doves also remain, much to Katia’s annoyance. Dante (no relation to the American director Joe Dante) gives the movie a fairly sad, bittersweet tone which only increases as the film goes on. The younger Macaluso sisters get the most screen time as their section is essentially the film’s longest, as they show up in flashbacks throughout the film. The nature of the tragedy which essentially shapes the lives of the sisters is hinted at throughout the movie, but shown in full near the end in perhaps the only misstep of the film; I don’t think it was necessary to show it, to be honest. There is also a scene in the idle of Lia, who is apparently studying to be a veterinarian, dissecting a cow which might set off alarm bells for the squeamish.

Dante uses Erik Satie’s elegiac Gymnopédie No. 1 throughout, mostly sourced as the music for a clock that plays the well-known tune, and then in the piano version most of us are familiar with. The piece is often used in cinema as a metaphor for growing old, and its use here is fitting.

Although most of the action takes place in the apartment, the movie never feels claustrophobic. The first third is incredibly joyful which makes the second and third acts all the more poignant; Dante does a wonderful job using tone throughout the movie. And while the metaphor of the doves may be a bit overdone here, it isn’t so overdone as to become monotonous and quite frankly the relationships between the sisters at various times in their lives was absolutely compelling for me.

The movie, which premiered at Venice last year, is probably not on the radar of a lot of cinephiles since it isn’t getting distribution by one of the more noted arthouse labels, and that’s a shame because this is an absolute gift of a movie. It’s playing in New York and Los Angeles only at the moment, but there are plans to release it in select theaters around the United States throughout August. Hopefully, it will be playing in a theater near you but certainly keep an eye out for it on VOD when it becomes available there if not.

REASONS TO SEE: Intensely, powerfully emotional. A realistic examination of sisterhood.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally melodramatic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, nudity, sexual content, adult themes and an animal dissection.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a stage play, also written by Dante.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/14/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Our Little Sister
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Suicide Squad

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Band Aid


There are few things as musically authentic as a garage band..

(2017) Comedy (IFC) Zoe Lister-Jones, Adam Pally, Fred Armisen, Susie Essman, Retta, Hannah Simone, Ravi Patel, Brooklyn Decker, Angelique Cabral, Majandra Delfino, Nelson Franklin, Kailash Banerjee Sukhadia, Vivien Lyre Blair, Colin Hanks, Chris D’Elia, Daryl Wein, Jamie Chung, Erinn Hayes, Jesse Williams, Gillian Zinser. Directed by Zoe Lister-Jones

 

Marriages are complex, fragile things that can sometimes be torn apart by the slightest of difficulties. We take it for granted that married couples will argue, sometimes in toxic ways. Relationship experts tell us that arguments are a healthy thing for couples. Experience tells us that they can also signify the beginning of the end.

All Anna (Lister-Jones) and Ben (Pally) seem to do is argue. The arguments are generated by life’s little annoyances – like a chronically full sink of dirty dishes and a leaky faucet that never gets fixed –  and often lead to big underlying issues. Both of these 20-somethings are suffering from failed expectations; Anna once had a book deal that fell through and now she’s an Uber driver. Ben, a talented artist, designs corporate logos when he can actually get his butt off the couch. There are moments that it’s clear that the two still love each other but those moments are becoming increasingly infrequent.

One early hint that things are terribly wrong between them is that when they are invited to a child’s birthday party, Anna has to get really high just to make it through the party for reasons that become clear later in the film. While she is blissed out, she and Ben give an impromptu rock concert on children’s instruments. Later that night, Anna hits on the idea of starting a band – and using their arguments as inspiration for songs.

Considering that their relationship counselor is moving to Canada (quite possibly to get away from the two of them), it seems like all the therapy they can afford. They locate their dusty guitar and bass and start searching for a drummer; they find one in Dave (Armisen), a neighbor and recovering sex addict who probably couldn’t be more creepy if the writer’s tried (and they did).

They play a couple of gigs and they aren’t half bad. In fact, they’re pretty good. Best of all, the impromptu therapy seems to be working; Anna and Ben are arguing less and the dishes are getting done. They seem to be more kind towards each other. A potential record deal is in the offing. Life couldn’t be rosier.

Then they have the mother of all arguments and at last some of their underlying issues begin to surface. Anna throws Ben out and he shacks up with Dave for a bit before running home to Mama (Essman). But there were things said that can’t be un-said. Can their relationship survive? Should it?

There’s a lot to like here. Lister-Jones, more familiar to viewers through her television work including her most recent stint on the CBS sitcom Life in Pieces, proves to be a promising director. She’s no Sofia Coppola – yet – but she has the wisdom to keep her touch light and the skill to pull it off. She also has a ton of chemistry with Pally; the two make a cute couple, too cute upon occasion but always believable. Their arguments hit the right notes and sound pretty authentic to these married ears.

The dialogue is hipster 101 in some ways; everyone talks like they’re in a sitcom pulling off snarky one-liners. The trouble is, I know a lot of people who talk exactly like Ben and Anna and it’s even more annoying in real life. Some people are also not going to be able to get past that both Ben but especially Anna use drugs heavily t get through the pain and have both become somewhat caught in a very deep rut. Go-getters might have trouble with the couple, as those who have issues with hipsters might.

Still, the movie is surprisingly insightful – the conversation between Ben and his Mom near the end on the nature of women had a lot to say and makes the whole movie worth it right there. I was also fond of the dirty dishes as a metaphor for the relationship; the dishes just stood there stagnant in a pile with the couple just piling new dishes on until one of them thinks to clear out the dishes from the sink. So it is with relationships (and Ben and Anna’s in particular); all the negative stuff gets piled on in the relationship and the heap just gets larger and larger until one of them decides to let go of the negatives.

The tone is pretty light and I liked that the humor which was pretty skewed in places kept things from getting too depressing, but some of the humor is a bit cruel and snarky; if you don’t like those sorts of jokes this movie might not be for you. Do look for the cameos of Uber passengers in Anna’s car. This isn’t going to be top ten material for the year but it is a breezy and engaging film that has a surprising amount of depth at its core. Definitely check this one out!

REASONS TO GO: There are a surprising amount of insights, particularly later on in the movie. The music is pretty decent and surprisingly varied..
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is almost unbearably hipster-friendly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is more than a little drug use, plenty of profanity, some brief nudity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Decker, Delfino and Lister-Jones all star in the TV show Friends with Better Lives.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inside Llewyn Davis
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Past Life

Raise Your Kids on Seltzer


Things can get uncomfortable when cracks in a marriage become apparent.

Things can get uncomfortable when cracks in a marriage become apparent.

(2015) Drama (Public Shores) Penny Werner, Jeff Kao, Nancy Kimball, Barry Newman, Kris Caltagirone, Deniz Demirer, William Cully Allen, Alanna Blair, Mark Zucker, Daniel Kremer, Rob Nilsson, Josh Peterson, Pamela Ambler, Leoni Figueredo, Dana Lorena Leon, Natalie Echols, Solomon Zucker, Aaron Hollander, Maryelle Turner. Directed by Daniel Kremer

 

Sometimes we put things behind us for a reason. Maybe the events of the past are just too painful, but other times we’ve simply moved on. Either way, we never completely escape our past.

Terry (Kao) and Tessa (Werner) Wasserman-Wang are a middle-aged couple living in the San Francisco Bay Area. They make their living as corporate videographers which isn’t the most exciting gig in history. Nowhere near as exciting as what they used to do for a living – cult deprogrammers.

They get a letter out of the blue from a former client that tells them that the daughter they rescued from a cult has recently committed suicide, naming the Wasserman-Wangs as the reason for her drastic action in her suicide note. Terry won’t let Tessa read the entire letter, which upsets her even further. Terry seems to be unaffected, busy working on the book he is writing about their years together working in the lucrative but not quite legal trade of what they prefer to call “exit counseling.”

Tessa’s twin sister Willa (also Werner) is getting her son’s bar mitzvah planned and abruptly informs Tessa that Terry is “uninvited.” Tessa is understandably hurt but Terry’s reaction (or lack thereof) further bothers Tessa. She also objects to Terry’s increasing tendency to make decisions for her.

Terry is feeling increasingly constricted by their corporate videography work and the book is stalled by the overbearing daughter (Blair) of Terry’s co-author (Allen). When he is contacted by a friend who has a potential client willing to pay $50,000 to get young Chloe (Kimball) out of a cult, Terry is willing to jump at the chance, particularly since finances are tight. Tessa, on the other hand, is horrified – she thought they’d agreed to leave that life behind and the letter has further strengthened her resolve. The cracks in the facade of their marriage may be deepening into canyons that may not be able to be resolved.

This isn’t Kremer’s first rodeo and there is some self-assurance to the direction. The relationship between Terry and Tessa is strained and feels it, sometimes almost too well; one feels that awkward moment at a party when a couple snipe just a little too personally at one another. While that may make the viewer feel a little bit put off, that’s as it should be; if you’re going to make a movie about a relationship that is strained, the viewer should feel that strain as well.

Werner is mainly at the front and center as the emotional focus of the film. While Kao plays things close to the vest, Werner is outgoing and an open book in many ways. Her Tessa is the kind of Jewish woman that makes the world a better place; she’s funny, pretty and pragmatic. She knows how to have fun but she knows what’s right for her family too. I found myself relating more to Tessa than to Terry, who is very emotionally closed-off.

The script has a tendency to meander a bit and not always in a good way. There are periodic insertions of interviews with the lawyer (Newman) for a cult leader that do nothing for the story and just serve to pad the running time. There are also little bits, like an obsession with a Siamese pickle and the whole bar mitzvah subplot that really distract from what is the most compelling story in the film – the relationship between Terry and Tessa. That distraction really hurts the overall experience and is the one factor I think that damages the film the most.

I like the cult deprogramming angle and how it affects those who do the deprogramming but Kremer doesn’t spend a whole lot of time on it surprisingly. Then again, that might be a different movie than the one Kremer wanted to make although I think that would be a fascinating movie as well. Still, one can look at the relationship between Tessa and Terry and find a lot that is fascinating, and a lot that is insightful about long-term relationships. I just wish there had been less distracting the audience from finding those insights.

REASONS TO GO: The concept is intriguing. The dialogue between Terry and Tessa is completely authentic.
REASONS TO STAY: Over-written. The performances can be stiff at times.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie Tessa is watching on TV is A Cool Sound from Hell by director Sidney J. Furie, whom Kremer has written a biography on.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/27/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Martha Marcy May Marlene
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Nocturnal Animals

Krampus


Krampus asks Krista Stadler if she knows a good manicurist.

Krampus asks Krista Stadler if she knows a good manicurist.

(2015) Horror Comedy (Universal/Legendary) Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Allison Tolman, Conchata Ferrell, Emjay Anthony, Stefania LaVie Owen, Maverick Flack, Luke Hawker, Gideon Emery (voice), Lolo Owen, Queenie Samuel, Leith Towers, Mark Atkin, Gareth Ruck, Trevor Bau, Felicity Hamill, Kelly Lily Marie, Ivy George, Sophie Gannon. Directed by Michael Dougherty

The Holly and the Quill

Christmas is a time for family which can be a double-edge sword. Most of us love nearly all of our families, but there’s always that one uncle or cousin or aunt that drive us straight to the liquor cabinet. Sometimes, we’re the ones that drive our families there.

For Tom (Scott) and Sarah Engel (Collette), there are plenty of cabinets for that bus ride. The two are having a bit of a tough go; Tom is a workaholic dad who has been drifting away from his wife, who is a bit tightly wound to put it charitably. Neither one seem to notice that their son Max (Anthony) is having a hard time with believing in the Big Fat Man. Only Omi Engel (Stadler), Tom’s mother who speaks mostly German, seems to have bonded with the young boy. Teen daughter Beth (S.L. Owen) is more focused on her boyfriend Derek (Towers).

Making the mix even more volatile is the arrival of Sarah’s sister Linda (Tolman) and her Tea Party/NRA husband Howard (Koechner) and his bullying brood of Stevie (L. Owen) and Jordan (Samuel) as well as overeating Howard Jr. (Flack) and worst of all, abrasive Aunt Dorothy (Ferrell) whom Sarah would most fervently wish back to Oz.

After a dinner in which the tension around the table boils over, Max has had enough. He tears up his letter to Santa, which brings a strange and extreme weather front to town, snowing everyone in. However, that’s not the worst of it; the family is being stalked by Krampus (Hawker, voiced by Emery), a German folk tale who is a little more real than you might think. He’s after the naughty and the nice, and he has a bunch of minions, ranging from a serpentine Jack-in-the-Box monster to maniacal gingerbread men to a vicious angel and homicidal toys, to do his dirty work. A lump of coal simply won’t do when you’re Krampus.

This is a fun mix of terror and laughter which since the studio didn’t do press screenings and most of the press it has received is mostly negative actually surprised me. Of course, Dougherty directed the much underrated Trick ‘r Treat and that should have alerted me to the fact that this was a lot more than a cookie cutter holiday horror flick. Krampus is certainly far from that.

Part of what makes this better is that Scott and Collette make very relatable characters; in particular Scott is likable as all get out. You get the sense that he’s trying to be a great father and a good husband, but the responsibilities are just weighing him down. Similarly, Collette’s Sarah is going all out to make it a memorable Christmas, but is met with either indifference or intense criticism and she’s at her breaking point. Few actresses in Hollywood can play high-strung without getting shrill, but Collette manages that, skirting Bette Davis territory without entering it.

Most of the other characters are holiday comedy tropes; the drunken aunt with the foul mouth who essentially doesn’t give a fart about the kids, the horndog boyfriend, the naive daughter who doesn’t get that the boyfriend only wants to get into her panties, the overbearing oafish uncle, the henpecked aunt, the nightmarish cousins who could every one of them use a good kick in the most painful of places. Koechner, Ferrell and Tolman all do credible job but have little to hang their craft on.

Dougherty does a real good job balancing the humor and the gore – in fact, the gore is kept to a minimum, relying more on the creatures (mostly CGI) for the scares. Krampus himself is a woodcut come to life, looking terrifying and had I seen something of that as a child, my bladder control would have been shot for life. However, not all of the creatures fare as well, some being resolutely non-scary and others are too obviously CGI. The snake-like Jack-in-the-Box was the one that was the least successful, but the gingerbread men are absolutely non-threatening.

It must be said that the ending was a little bit convoluted and while I give Dougherty props for at least going a bit out of the box for it, I did find it unsatisfying and disappointing compare to the rest of the film, taking the rating down a notch in the process. Still in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this as entertainment and while this is no Bad Santa, it is definitely solid filmmaking that re-confirms Dougherty as a talented filmmaker who has bigger and better things in store for the moviegoing public. Certainly he’s the most promising horror film auteur you’ve never heard of, which is something of a shame because I find his movies as entertaining as anything else that is coming out in the genre over the past five years or so. Hopefully that will change after this one.

REASONS TO GO: Funny and/or scary when it needs to be. Scott and Collette are solid.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending’s a disappointment. Some of the creatures miss the mark.
FAMILY VALUES: Some disturbing images, horror violence, foul language and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The bell ornaments that Krampus hands out say Gruss vom Krampus which translated means “Greetings from Krampus.”
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Holly and the Quill continues!