Extra Innings


The waiting is the hardest part.

(2019) Drama (Ocean Parkway) Geraldine Singer, Aidan Pierce Brennan, Alex Walton, Albert Dabah, Robby Ramos, Mara Kassin, Simone Policano, Avery Powers, Ryan DeLuca, Erika Longo, Dylan Pitanza, Gavin Swartz, Juliette Gold, Victoria Ric, Ed Bergtold, Ava Curry, Meg Scanlon, Natasha Coppola-Shalom, Elise Finnerty. Directed by Albert Dabah

 

One of the great joys of movies is that often we get a glimpse into someone else’s life. That life may be harder than our own or easier; there may be more tragedy in it or less, but it is inescapably different than our own. In observing another person’s experiences, fictional or not, we learn something about our own.

David (Brennan) is a young middle school kid who loves baseball and why not? It is the early 1960s in Brooklyn and while the Dodgers are gone leaving a gaping open wound in Brooklyn’s heart, there is still the joy of playing out on the diamond. He has raw talent and his coach (Bergtold) thinks he has real potential.

David’s situation at home though makes it difficult for him to put all his energy into the game. David’s parents are Jewish of Syrian descent and while not Orthodox, his dad (Dabah) is strict about Jewish traditions and what is expected of his son. The family is also dealing with Morris (Ramos), David’s much older brother who is suffering from what appears to be some form of autism (at least to my untrained eye) at a time when it was little understood. Morris is essentially a shut-in and spends his days listening to classical music, sometimes at ear-splitting volume, and memorizing classic literature. Sometimes he finds it hard to communicate at all. David’s mom (Singer) is certain she is seeing some progress from her eldest son following a trip to Israel to consult with top doctors there.

David’s dad sees his younger son’s obsession with baseball as childish and foolish; it is nearly time for David’s bar mitzvah and he’s concerned that David isn’t devoting enough time to study. He also believes that David’s dream of playing baseball professionally is absolutely a fantasy; David should remain in his Brooklyn community, take a Jewish wife, raise a Jewish family and join the family business that Morris is clearly not equipped to handle.

The only person who appears to understand David is his older sister, free-spirited Vivian (Kassin) who lives in California with her husband although her marriage is on the rocks. She’s the only member of his family to see David play and is a manic cheerleader for him when she’s around. However, the family would soon be rocked by tragedy.

Fast forward to David’s senior year in high school. He’s still playing baseball and has become the star of the team; his family has come to more or less tolerate David’s obsession but the opinion of David’s father hasn’t changed at all. Still, things are going pretty good for David; he has a girlfriend in Natalie (Policano) and best of all, David’s coach has gotten him noticed by a West Coast university that wants David out there in the fall to play center field.

Naturally, David’s family is very much against this. They want him to stay local, play at a community college and then give up this baseball foolishness and get married, get a job yadda yadda yadda. However, David stands up for himself and puts his foot down; he’s got a golden opportunity and he’s going to take it. An ecstatic Vivian is thrilled for her baby brother and offers to put him up at her place in L.A. until he can get settled into a dorm. Unfortunately, tragedy isn’t done with David.

Dabah, making his feature film debut in the director’s chair, based the movie on his own experiences as a teen. While some of the events depicted in the film are slightly different than they occurred in reality, the basics are there. Dabah takes on the unusual challenge of playing his own father; one wonders if he got any insight into his dad in doing so.

This is clearly a project that has a great deal of personal meaning to Dabah and that passion shows in his meticulous attention to character development. There are no cookie cutter characters in this movie and for the most part the actors cast do their jobs well. I felt a little badly for Brennan; he has a scene in the film where he’s informed about a terrible personal tragedy and handling the emotional aspect of it was clearly not something he was experienced enough for. Dabah would have been better served to either keep David’s reaction off-screen or have the actor turn away from the camera. Just indulging in a little armchair directing there, but it would have spared the child actor from a difficult emotional scene and made the movie a little better as well.

While the budgetary restrictions were in evidence (although David’s team plays several games during the course of the movie, they’re always against the same team) what money Dabah had to work with is all onscreen. He does a decent job of recreating the 60s given his limited budget and more importantly, he makes the family products of the era as well.

The movie could have used some judicious editing; there seems to be some extraneous scenes that really reinforce what has already occurred in other scenes but brevity is a skill that is hard to master from a filmmaker’s point of view. Regardless of the movie’s flaws, it ended up growing on me the longer I watched it. Right now, the movie is just starting to show up in film festivals and at one-off screenings at Jewish community centers around New York but the producers hope to branch out at film festivals nationwide (are you listening, Central Florida Jewish Film Festival?) and hope to be on an online streaming service down the road.

REASONS TO SEE: Obviously made from the heart.
REASONS TO AVOID: Could have used a bit more editing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual situations, drug use and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kate Bosworth, who is also a producer on the film, is married to Michael Polish; Polish also frequently collaborates with his brother Mark although Mark isn’t involved with this specific film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/29/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rockaway
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Tottaa Pataaka Item Maal (The Incessant Fear of Rape)

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Randy’s Canvas


How much more New England can you get?

(2018) Romance (Vision) Adam Carbone, Michael Emery, Scout Taylor-Compton, Marycarmen Lopez, Richard Riehle, Massi Furlan, Kevin G. Schmidt, Shawn Pyfrom, John Petrella, Ramiro Tavares, Sissy O’Hara, Dick Lebeau, Michael G. Nathan, Stephen O’Neil Martin, Marilyn Baker, Ray Boutin, Christopher L. Ferreira, Sonya Joyner, Courtney Danforth. Directed by Sean Michael Beyer

 

Autism is one of those things that most of us are woefully ignorant of but sort of paint a picture in our minds that is highly inaccurate, generally. Autism doesn’t mean dumb, it doesn’t mean untalented, it doesn’t mean that those afflicted with it can’t lead meaningful lives. Autism means that those who have it process things differently. Yes, some folks with autism are not as smart as other folks with autism. Some can’t handle anything more than the most menial of jobs, although others can excel at high-paying jobs. Like all the rest of us, there are all sorts of people with autism and there are no two alike.

Randy (Carbone) has autism but he is high-functioning. He lives with his brother Henry (Emery), a garbage man in a small town near Providence, Rhode Island. Randy works as a janitor in a small art gallery in town; he likes to spend time talking art with the security guard Bob (Petrella). Randy is an artist himself and one night he forgets his portfolio (which he takes with him wherever he goes apparently) and when Bob looks through it, he realizes the kid is a major talent. Impulsively, Bob hangs one of Randy’s works in the gallery.

That wasn’t a bright idea. The owners of the gallery are furious and they fire the both of them but not before curator Maurizio D’Oro (Furlan) gets a look at Randy’s painting and comes to the conclusion that Bob did – that here was a diamond in the rough. He offers Randy a job in his gallery and an amazing opportunity – to audit an art class at the New England Institute of Technology with the famous Professor Hausdorff (Riehle).

Randy isn’t keen on the idea, although reluctantly gives in when everyone he trusts urges him to go for it. Randy is not known for taking instructions well or following them once they’re given which ends up placing him in an adversarial relationship with his professor. Making matters worse is that he’s in love with Sienna (Lopez) who is the girlfriend of Clinton (Schmidt), a smug entitled scion of the company that employs Henry. Sienna likes hanging out with Henry and Randy (although Clinton’s not at all pleased about it) but has no real romantic inclinations towards Randy. Randy’s classmate, the sunny and outgoing Cassie (Taylor-Compton) tries to help but the bottom line is that Randy is miserable and it’s affecting his art and putting in jeopardy his chance to develop his talent.

To the good: Randy is a fully drawn-out character whose autism is incidental in many ways; it’s not who he is, it’s what he has. He can be a handful to deal with but then again, so can we all. I was surprised to discover that Carbone is not autistic himself; he has all the tics and rapid hand movements down cold.

I was also surprised at Emery who I’ve not heard of but I sincerely hope that changes. He has a great deal of charismatic screen presence and could have a long career ahead of him on film. While Henry isn’t the perfect brother, his heart is in the right place and you get a good sense of that good heart here.

Speaking of heart, this film has plenty of it. You can’t help but root for it to be better. The small town New England locations give the movie a very homey feeling and as you watch you feel like you’re being wrapped in a warm blanket on a cold fall rainy day. Not every movie can make that claim.

To the not-so-good: the score which starts out lovely with a simple piano melody gets overbearing with washes of strings that come straight from a cheesy melodrama of 50 years ago. They also use too many pop-folk songs on the soundtrack to the point where I began to wonder if I was watching a movie or listening to a playlist. Simple is better, folks.

The script also gets a little bit overwrought at times, emphasizing the melodramatic elements which should have been played down. Poor Randy is suffering from his first love and we all can relate to the pain of it and I know that for some folks with autism dealing with strong emotions can be nearly impossible but it did get to the point where I felt like the movie was losing its way. Some of the scenes also end a little too abruptly; there’s not a lot of flow between scenes. A steadier hand in the editing bay might have helped.

Thankfully, the good outweighs the bad but only slightly. This is definitely more of a feel good kind of film and while there was ample room for a teaching moment or two, the filmmakers never choose to go that route and the result is a lightweight romance with a hint of comedy in which the male lead happens to have autism. While the latter is admirable, it’s not enough to make the movie stand on its own essentially. There’s certainly room for improvement but the good news is that I think that those involved with this are capable of better things. Incidentally, check out the trivial pursuit entry in case you need a really good reason to rent or buy this.

REASONS TO GO: I love the New England locations; this film has an awful lot of heart.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie gets overwrought in places and the soundtrack is intrusive (too many songs!)
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of violence, some partial nudity and mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Proceeds from the film are going to benefit the Autism Society.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/16/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Aspie Seeks Love
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Bikini Moon

Far From the Tree


Love knows no boundaries.

(2017) Thriller (Sundance Selects) Andrew Solomon, Jason Kingsley, Emily Kingsley, Charles Kingsley, Tyler Reece, Trevor Reece, Derek Reece, Rebecca Reece, Jack, Joe, Leah, Lonni. Directed by Rachel Dretzin

 

When we set out to have kids, it’s only human to have a picture of them in our heads; how they’ll grow up to be athletes, difference makers or famous. We see them as we see the us we wanted to be growing up ourselves; now our kids will get it right. Unfortunately for us, kids rarely turn out exactly the way we picture they will. They have their own ideas of who they want to be not to mention they don’t always turn out physically the way we wanted. Some our born with dwarfism, or with Down’s syndrome.

Andrew Solomon grew up being interested in tragic opera and the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Realizing that he was gay, at first he went into denial, even using sexual surrogacy to try and jump start his heterosexuality. When this didn’t work, he came out to his parents who reacted with disappointment and a notable lack of support  As time went by he began to wonder about kids who turned out very different than their parents or their parents expectations. He wrote a book about it and it turned out to be a New York Times bestseller.

This documentary is based on the book or to be more accurate, inspired by. Solomon himself turns up in interviews to discuss how the book came to be and to put some of the onscreen stories in perspective. The stories themselves are varied and are about different sets of challenges – Solomon’s is the only one about straight parents raising gay children.

Jason Kingsley was born with Down’s syndrome at a time when the condition was little understood and something of a stigma – which it still is, but to a lesser extent. His parents, including his mother Emily who was a writer for Sesame Street refused to warehouse Jason as his doctor suggested. In fact, Emily arranged to have Jason appear on the show which forever changed the way that kids with Down’s syndrome are viewed. Jason continues to be an activist and although his obsession with the Disney film Frozen may cause some eye-rolling (couldn’t he have picked a better film?) he is articulate enough to quote Shakespeare and is a whole lot smarter than he appears.

So too is Jack, whose severe autism makes him unable to communicate conventionally. His parents however refused to give up on him and eventually found a way to allow Jack to communicate using a facilitator and a computer device.

Lonni, like most people, wants to be loved and to love someone. Born with dwarfism has made that a lot more challenging for her. Unspeakably lonely, her mother encourages to attended a convention for the Little People of America and her horizons are instantly opened up. Her mothers and sisters are amazed and pleased that Lonni has perked up discovering that she is far from alone – that there are lots of people just like her in the same boat she is rowing.

Fellow little people Joe and Leah are in a different situation. The two are blissfully, deliriously in love. They go through the challenges of planning a wedding – and then Leah gets pregnant. Joe, who is wheelchair-bound, is about to be a daddy and although the pregnancy has its own degrees of difficulty, both look forward to the experience.

The most heartbreaking story is that of Trevor Reece, a seemingly normal teenage kid who one day woke up and decided to slit the throat of an eight-year-old boy. Arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison, his family struggles to pick up the pieces. Having moved from the urban New Orleans neighborhood they grew up in to a suburban Texas home, they communicate with Trevor regularly. His brothers Tyler and Derek have a hard time reconciling their big brother’s actions with the kid they grew up with.

The stories are all compelling ones and do push all the right emotional buttons. The problem is that we end up spending less than 20 minutes apiece on each story; what we end up with is a summary rather than an in-depth look at how these families coped. That’s a real drawback, particularly in that it makes the film less useful for parents who might be dealing with similar situations. Also Solomon’s segments, rather than giving the context we’re looking for, tend to be a bit more self-referential than I think the film needed.

Still, the movie’s heart is in the right place. The stories are inspiring and even if we don’t get the depth and context we’re looking for we still get a viewpoint not often shown in documentaries other than in passing. Jason’s story, the first one shown, is in many ways the most grounded and when Jason talks at the conclusion of his segment about his future is to my mind one of the best moments I’ve seen in a documentary this year. Those who are fans of the book will likely enjoy the movie but come away a bit disappointed. The overall message of both the book and the movie shouldn’t be discounted though – that those we see as different may have more challenges than we do but are not so different than us than they might appear.

REASONS TO GO: The stories range from inspiring to heartbreaking. The focus is more on the parents than on the kids which is a viewpoint we don’t often see. Jason’s final monologue is goosebumps-inducing.
REASONS TO STAY: The interludes with Solomon seem a bit self-aggrandizing. Having too many subjects keeps any of the stories from resonating as much as they might.
FAMILY VALUES: The film is suitable for family viewing and should even be encouraged for the same particularly for parents who want to teach their children tolerance, empathy and loving without conditions.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Of the stories told here only Jason Kingsley’s appears in the book; all the rest are new.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/20/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews: Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Life, Animated
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Sid and Aya (not a love story)

Keep the Change


This isn’t your usual romantic walk on the boardwalk.

(2017) Romance (Kino-Lorber) Brandon Polansky, Samantha Elisofon, Jessica Walter, Will Deaver, Tibor Feldman, Nicky Gottlieb, Christina Brucato, Sondra James, Jennifer Brito, Jonathan Tchaikovsky, Tommy Beardmore, Alex Emmanuel, Luke Rosen, Charlton Lamar, Anna Suzuki, Mary Cassera, Evander Duck Jr., Lori Burch, Kennedy Hall, Yvanna Barktidy. Directed by Rachel Israel

 

Some movies are for everybody. Some movies are not. Some come easily to any audience. Others require patience. This film is one of the latter.

David (Polansky) is a man who yearns to be normal. He has some quirky mannerisms, the most glaring being his propensity to tell inappropriate jokes. Most are funny only in the abstract – “Why did the bum vote for Obama? He wanted CHANGE! Haw haw haw!” However, this mannerism has gotten him into trouble on a number of occasions, repelling first dates with jokes about rape and more to the point, making jokes about pigs to a cop. This lands him, very unwillingly, at the Connections program at the Jewish Community Center in New York in which people on varying degrees of the Autism spectrum are given the opportunities to socialize in a safe environment.

David isn’t having it. He’s just “passing through” as he tells one of the participants and is sure that he is far better than the weirdos (his word) that make up the program. However, he is paired up with the somewhat outgoing Sarah (Elisofon) who might break into song with little encouragement and who mostly communicates through clichés and aphorisms. This annoys David at first but when she proclaims that David is “real real smoking hot and sexy,” he takes notice.

This isn’t a match necessarily made in heaven; her affections towards other guys drive David crazy as he wants a normal girlfriend. David’s casual cruelty hurt Sarah to the core but often she is able to scrunch up and just keep going, having learned to endure anything the world can dish out at her. Autism patients often must in order to survive.

The plot isn’t anything to write home about. It’s standard rom-com stuff but of course with a difference; rather than attractive young indie types or Hollywood A-listers, the actors are mostly autistic themselves. Israel is to be applauded for this and as a card carrying lefty I have to give the movie points for this. That doesn’t excuse the movie for going the predictable route though.

I get that the intent seemed to be reminding us that for all the quirks and tics of the autistic they are just like us, and it’s a great message to send. Am I sure that Israel was 100% successful in getting that across? Well, no. I think I have to be careful here because I’m not trying to say that those with autism don’t have stories to tell; of course they do. I can only though react to what I see onscreen and I wasn’t altogether satisfied. Some of the plot points felt a little bit contrived and considering all the trouble the actors and filmmakers went to in making this as authentic as possible they seemed to sabotage their own film in that sense.

Elisofon is absolutely charming. She is guileless and if her character is a bit on the sexy Pollyanna side, there’s nothing wrong with that. You won’t find a character like her anywhere in the movies. Polansky has a much more difficult job; his character is largely selfish and unlikable and it is his character who has to undergo the most change during the course of the film. That’s not always the easiest thing to embrace for any actor. There will be times that he says and does things however that will make most viewers cringe. Even when the person who says something cruel has autism, it still hurts when he or she says it. David doesn’t see himself as autistic or if he does, as one who is above all the others in Connections. He wears sunglasses everywhere and when he gets flustered he makes a loud honking noise that’s a cross between a sneeze and clearing the throat and has his share of insecurities. His overbearing mother (Walter) likely contributes to that smug sense of self-importance. David’s family is wealthy which largely insulates him but his mother wants him to have a “normal” wife, one who can take care of him after his parents are gone. The thought of him pairing up with someone else who is autistic is about the most terrifying thing she can imagine.

There are some moments that will genuinely tug at the heartstrings and those folks who have some contact with the autistic community – whether or not a family member or friend – will look upon this film fondly. The rest of us will likely have to accept that this is an imperfect movie and be okay with that once we decide to pull the trigger and give it a view. One certainly has to applaud the efforts to bring this community onto the screen where they have largely been rendered supporting cast members or stereotypes. This is a breath of fresh air in that regard albeit one that could have used a bit of air freshener. There will be those who don’t have the patience to see this through to the end – and while the first instinct will be to look down on those people as bad people, I find myself having a hard time doing that. After all, asking those who have limitations to go beyond them is no easy task and just because some folks will have as hard a time with this as a certain segment will have with Love, Simon is not a reason for scorn; it’s an opportunity for education.

REASONS TO GO: There are some occasional moments of the warm fuzzies.
REASONS TO STAY: Not everyone will have the patience to watch this.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity as well as some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie won the Best Narrative Feature award and Israel won the Best New Narrative Director award at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/17/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Best and Most Beautiful Things
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Maineland

Wakefield


Bryan Cranston’s glamour shot.

(2016) Drama (IFC) Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Garner, Jason O’Mara, Beverly D’Angelo, Ian Anthony Dale, Monica Lawson, Pippa Bennett-Warner, Ellery Sprayberry, Victoria Bruno, Isaac Leyva, Fredrick Keeve, Bill Timoney, Alexander Zale, Hal Dion, Eliza Coleman, Derek Weston, Angela Taylor-Jones, Tommy Otis, Cameron Simmons, Scott St. Blaze, Carinna Rossignoli. Directed by Robin Swicord

 

Haven’t we all at one time or another wanted to be observers in our own lives, to see how those we are closest to react if we were to disappear from their lives? Frank Capra made in some ways the ultimate version of that fantasy with It’s a Wonderful Life but while the message was uplifting and positive, some suspect that the reality would be much darker.

Howard Wakefield (Cranston) is a successful New York litigator. He has a big house out in the suburbs, a beautiful wife Diane (Garner) and two great kids Emily (Bennett-Warner) and Ellen (Lawson). But that’s just the veneer. Scratch the surface a bit and you come to discover that his marriage to Diane is crumbling. They use jealousy as a means of keeping the home fires burning; she flirts with someone, they argue and then they have great sex – until the great sex part begins to stop. The kids are unenthusiastic about being around him on those few occasions when he’s actually around.

One night he returns home from his commute to find a power outage. At his front door is a raccoon sniffing around the garbage where his wife has thrown out his dinner, tired of waiting for him to come home. He chases the raccoon into the garage where it bounds up to the loft above the garage. He scares it back out again but discovers that a round window above the garage gives him a perfect view of the inside of his house. Fascinated, he plays voyeur for a bit until he falls asleep.

When he wakes up with a start, he sees his wife sending the kids off to school and then toddling off to work as if nothing happened. Incensed, he decides to play out the string a little longer. He raids the house for food and moves into the garage loft. Soon she goes from cavalier to genuinely worried. The police are called.

Weeks go by and Walter begins to experience a kind of liberating freedom. He no longer has any responsibilities, no need to conform to what’s expected of him. When a memorial service is held at the house for the missing Walter, he is bemused that one of the lawyers at his firm is trying to put the moves on Diane. He begins to reminisce about his life with her, how they met – and how he stole her away from his best friend Dirk Morrison (O’Mara) by blatantly lying. All’s fair, right?

But as weeks turn into months and the weather grows cold, he begins to experience something unexpected – loneliness. Being a voyeur has its limits and there’s no doubt that the liberation he’s experienced has lost its luster. To make matters worse, Diane has reconnected with her old flame Dirk who has taken Walter’s place at the Thanksgiving table. Walter realizes that the things he took for granted are the things that made his life worth living but is it too late for him to re-enter his life and live once again?

There is a dark almost Russian feeling to the movie that reminded me of the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. There’s an almost absurd element to the drama – does anybody really think that it wouldn’t be noticed that a wild-eyed bearded man was living in the loft above their garage? – and I found that rather pleasing.

Bryan Cranston has since breaking out in Breaking Bad become one of America’s most reliable actors. Yes, he’s done a few forgettable movies but he’s generally always memorable in them (with a few exceptions). This is all him – much of the movie is Walter’s voice-over narration – and he’s in virtually every frame of the film. It’s quite a burden to shoulder but Cranston carries it like it’s a bag full of Styrofoam. He’s very likely to get nominated for an Oscar this year – probably not for this one but for the much buzzed about Last Flag Flying – and you can see why in this film why he’s a threat every year to make the Oscar shortlist.

Garner and O’Mara are mostly glimpsed from a distance. This is all Walter’s point of view so often we don’t hear what either one is saying. They largely use body language to get across what their character is feeling. I have to award kudos to Swicord for sticking to her guns and to Garner and O’Mara for going along with her plan. It couldn’t be easy for either actor to sign up for a film where they had so little dialogue but both are an integral part of the movie’s story nonetheless.

Howard isn’t a very likable character to say the least. Most of the time in his narration he is full of nasty little asides about various people in his life. Some of his zingers are dang funny but you realize that there is a kind of nastiness to him that he might just get off on demeaning others. One quickly comes to the realization that the problem in Howard’s marriage…is Howard. The man himself takes much longer to come to that conclusion than the audience does.

This is an interesting character study but the movie isn’t really an essential one. With a performance as mesmerizing as Cranston’s is here one has to recommend it on that basis alone but frankly this won’t be one of the more stellar indie films this year in terms of quality. It’s solid though and definitely worth seeing if you can manage it but if you can’t it’s not a great loss either. Still, the central theme of going out of ourselves to get to truly know ourselves is well-handled and there is quality here. Definitely keep an eye out for it and check it out if you can.

REASONS TO GO: This is Cranston’s show and he makes the most of it. There’s a Dostoyevsky-like vibe to the film. It’s an interesting character study.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is a little bit on the mean-spirited side. It’s interesting but not essential.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality as well as profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on the E.L. Doctorow short story of the same name that appeared in the January 14, 2008 issue of The New Yorker which was in turn based on the Nathaniel Hawthorne story of the same name published in 1835.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ghost Dad
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Alien: Covenant

Power Rangers


Welcome to your childhood, revisited.

(2017) Science Fiction (Saban/Lionsgate) Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, RJ Cyler, Ludi Lin, Becky G, Elizabeth Banks, Bryan Cranston, Bill Hader (voice), Matt Shively, Cody Kearsley, David Denman, Robert Moloney, Anjali Jay, Sarah Grey, Morgan Taylor Campbell, Caroline Cave, Kayden Magnuson, Lisa Berry, Wesley MacInnes, John Stewart, Fiona Fu. Directed by Dean Israelite

 

Never underestimate the value of nostalgia in selling a franchise movie. The toys and games of our youth become the $100 million franchise film of our present. Michael Bay turned a TV show meant to sell toys into a billion dollar film franchise which shows no sign of abating.

The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers were arguably a bigger kid’s show in their day. Certainly it paved the way for all sorts of shows that were arguably toy ads and included such shows as Pokémon and Animorphs.  There were a couple of movies made with the Rangers (the first one I was forced to endure since my son was a MMPR junkie at the time) but while the show has continued in a variety of forms over the years, it hasn’t quite had the same cache as it did back in the day. Now Saban, the American distributor of the original, has started a film arm and is pulling out what is arguably their most valuable property to help get it going.

Five misfit teenagers in the sleepy California town of Angel Grove have been drawn together. Jock Jason (Montgomery) has a bright athletic future ahead of him but throws it all away for the sake of an unfunny prank that ends up getting him arrested. Kimberly (Scott) is a cheerleader whose clique has turned against her. Billy (Cyler) is a brilliant but bullied young man who is on the autism spectrum. Jason, who hates bullies, stands up for Billy but not because he is bullied – Billy is able to disarm the ankle bracelet he’s forced to wear.

Billy takes his two new friends to an old mine his late father used to take him to. There they meet Zack (Lin), an outgoing Asian kid and Trini (G), a Latina loner. The five of them discover that they picked a mine that happened to be above a buried alien spacecraft where they discover five coins. The coins give them a variety of super powers but nothing like what they would have if they could manifest the Power Ranger suits.

At least, that’s what giant head Zordon (Cranston) tells them. With his snarky robot sidekick Alpha 5 (Hader), the five are meant to be the new Power Rangers who have to battle interstellar baddie Rita Repulsa (Banks) who has plans to nab the Zeo Crystal and destroy the planet – unless the bickering teens can get their act together and team up to beat her and her giant robot Goldar. We’re doomed.

It’s hard in some ways for someone like me to review this; I really didn’t follow the show and while my son was way into it for a certain part of his youth, it was his show, not mine. We didn’t watch it together but that was okay – it was something that could be his and his alone, which is important for a young boy. The connection I have to the show is tenuous and the Easter eggs and cameos that litter the film go straight over my head. Younger people who grew up with the show in the 90s will find more resonance here than I ever could so keep that in mind.

The special effects are fairly spectacular for the most part – the climactic battle is a little bit overwrought and difficult to follow. It takes a long time to get there however; the Rangers don’t appear in uniform until the movie is nearly done and the dinosaur-like vehicles they operate, the Zords don’t appear until even later.

The movie is chock full of terms and expressions that will only make sense to those who grew up with the show.  That’s okay, mind you, but just be warned that those of us who weren’t into the show will have less of an experience. The same thing can be said about the Marvel movies, Star Trek movies and so on and so forth. That’s kind of the point of going to see a movie like this.

The movie is a bit schizophrenic in that part of it seems to want to be a slam-bang action movie and the other more of a Freeform teen angst movie. Israelite is more successful at the latter than the former and quite frankly the integration of the two could have been better and I think that’s where the movie has its biggest issue. When the action sequences come, they are a bit on the cheesy side and don’t look terribly convincing. They’re also quite jarring when you put them together with teens who are sexting, experiencing sensuality for the first times in their lives, dealing with autism and bullying and alienation from not only the adults in their lives but from people in general. All the special effects in the world can’t help you with those.

If you loved the original series, chances are that you’ll enjoy this depending on how much a stickler you are for keeping things the way they were in the 90s. Chances are you’ll have seen this already as well. For those wondering if they should catch this at the local dollar theater, do. It should definitely be experienced on a big screen with big sound. However, keep in mind that this is essentially a mediocre movie that could have used less of an eye on the bottom line and more of an eye on writing a great story involving these characters instead of one drowning helplessly in liquid cheese.

REASONS TO GO: There is a nostalgia factor for those who grew up with the original TV show.
REASONS TO STAY: Tries to be both an action movie and a young adult drama and doesn’t really integrate the two disparate sides together very well.
FAMILY VALUES: You’ll find plenty of sci-fi violence, a smattering of mild profanity and a little bit of crude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third Power Ranger movie to make the big screen (although as a reboot it isn’t connected to the other two) and the first in 20 years to be released.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chronicle
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Pandora

Supergirl (2016)


A young woman who is strong as she is beautiful.

(2016) Documentary (FilmRise) Naomi Kutin, Ed Kutin, Neshama Kutin, Ari Kutin, Rabbi Benjamin Yudin. Directed by Jessie Auritt

Sometimes young people come along who are just extraordinary. They stand out as having passions, being goal-oriented, natural leaders. Naomi Kutin is just such a person.

When we meet her in this documentary she is just 10 years old but she already owns the power lifting world record in the 97 pound class. She routinely beats people twice her age. During the course of the film we watch in awe as she lifts three times their own body weight. To quote the title of a mostly-forgotten 70s television show, that’s incredible.

Her parents are extremely supportive. Her father Ed is a power lifter as well and often competes in the master class at the same meets his daughter does. He has been training her from the time she expressed interest in the sport. Her mother Neshama who converted to Judaism is also extremely supportive but is very careful to make sure Naomi gets to express other sides of her personality as well. In the meantime, she goes to all of the competitions her daughter lifts at and shouts encouragement from the sideline; “Go Supergirl,” the nickname that she and Naomi’s friends have bestowed upon her. There is also her younger brother Ari who is in the autistic spectrum but who clearly adores his big sister – a feeling that is amply returned by Naomi. She is protective of him and encourages him when he also takes up an interest in power lifting.

In fact Naomi and Supergirl are almost two different people. Naomi is a devout Orthodox Jew but also a modern little girl who titters over boys with her friends, likes bright colors and is aware of all the pop culture touchstones that girls her age are into. Supergirl is a dedicated and focused athlete who spends most of her time training and before lifting psychs herself up with primal screams and grunts that you wouldn’t expect coming out of the mouth of a 10-year-old…or anyone else.

Auritt shot the documentary over the course of three years, from the triumphs of re-setting the power lifting record for her weight class to her struggles to stay in that class even as she is growing out of it. Much of Naomi’s self-identity, at least early on, is wrapped up in her world records. As it becomes clear that her body is growing into the next weight class, Naomi is dead set on keeping her weight at 97 pounds even though she is taller and not as centered as she was before her growth spurt.

Even as Naomi is wrestling with the inevitability of her weight increase, she is dealt a devastating blow as she begins to get terrible migraines. Soon it becomes clear that the cause of her migraines is her training and weightlifting; the doctors advise her to give it up but Naomi doesn’t want to. At first she fights through the pain but when she can no longer do that, she tries to find alternative solutions to maintain her health and still compete in the sport she loves at the level she is used to. As we watch, there’s no guarantee that she’ll be able to have what she wants.

What the movie makes clear is that Naomi is not the victim of stage parents who live vicariously through her achievements; nobody who is this dedicated and this focused does what Naomi does because they’re trying to please their parents. Her passion for power lifting comes straight from the heart. I’m sure there will be people who see this who will criticize the parenting going on, but personally I don’t think that’s valid. There are trolls all over the Internet as we see when Naomi reads some cruel comments that appear on her Facebook page. People really do suck sometimes.

It is also fascinating to watch how the Kutin family reconciles the weightlifting with their religious beliefs, although there are a few questions I have; their faith requires that there can be no electrical devices used during the Sabbath but we watch them on one occasion observing the Sabbath as a family; isn’t the camera an electronic device? Perhaps I’m ignorant of what is allowed on the Sabbath and what is not. Still, it is refreshing to see just how normal this family is other than the constant training. Watching Naomi and her mom go dress shopping for Naomi’s bat mizvah is about as fun as being there with them. In a sense, we are although of course we get no input into the dress Naomi chooses. Pity, that, because I have excellent taste in dresses. Moving along….

It is clear that the director has a good deal of affection for the subject of her documentary and who can blame her? Naomi is an extraordinary little girl. And for the record, she’s a beautiful girl who is going to grow to be a beautiful woman. She may power lift but she’s not sacrificing an iota of her femininity for it. I sense that her mother is seeing to that to a certain degree, but the fact is that Naomi just plain likes being a girl.

The story is pretty straightforward and told in a manner that is easily followed; Auritt doesn’t augment her film with animations or graphics for the most part other than the bare minimum. This is a traditional documentary style which is a good thing as far as I’m concerned. Auritt wisely chooses not to reinvent the wheel and just presents Naomi’s story mainly in Naomi’s own words. The talking heads mainly belong to her parents.

This isn’t the kind of documentary that is going to change your life for the most part. It is the story of a focused and special young woman and to be fair it will be inspirational to many. The takeaway is that those who are willing to put in the time, discipline and work to achieve their dreams can achieve them regardless of their age or size. That’s a good lesson, but not one that hasn’t been given in other films as well. Naomi Kutin is a special little girl and I think you’ll enjoy watching her story. You might even be inspired to go beyond your own limits in the thing your passionate about. And that, as it turns out, is what life is all about.

REASONS TO GO: Naomi is an impressive young person. The film gives us a glimpse into the daily life of an Orthodox Jewish family in a way that is very simple and direct.
REASONS TO STAY: The film isn’t as compelling as it might be. There are some incongruous moments.
FAMILY VALUES: There isn’t anything here that I wouldn’t feel concerned about allowing children or young people to see.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Auritt got the inspiration to do the film after reading a profile of Naomi online.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: First Position
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Tickled