Amber’s Descent


Amber is having a really bad day.

(2020) Horror (Breaking Glass) Kayla Stanton, Michael Mitton, Don Knodel, Nathaniel Vossen, Dione Russell, Colm Hill, Destiny Millins, Kirsten Khorsand, Sheron Russell, Jayden Shannon, Craig Paynton, Graham Daley, Sarah Seibert. Directed by Michael Bafaro

 

Trauma can do strange things not just to the body but also to the mind. It can affect us in ways we can’t predict and maybe not even understand.

Amber Waltz (Stanton), who is aptly named due to her profession as a concert pianist and classical music composer, has lived through a severe trauma, having survived being stabbed by her ex Mark (Vossen) who then slit his own throat while she watched, horrified. Understandably, she had a bit of a breakdown after that and decided to leave Seattle where she was living and moves to an isolated farmhouse somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

The house is lovely and secluded although it needs a lot of work, which is why she hires handyman Jim (Mitton) to fix things up. Soft-spoken and eager to please, he is a bit of a comforting presence for her, particularly since she starts to hear odd, unexplained noises while doors open and shut by themselves. At first she can chalk these things up to the uirks of an old house, but as she begins to see little girls where little girls shouldn’t be, and then has a highly erotic encounter with a bigger girl, and her symphony seems to be magically writing itself, Amber begins to wonder if the house is haunted. Then she wonders if she’s losing her mind. Finally, she wonders if something far more sinister – and deadly – is befalling her.

Early on, the movie has a lot of haunted house tropes that might lead one to believe that they are watching just another ghost movie, but the movie actually surprised me with the direction that it eventually went, whichis an accomplishment in and of itself. Those who stick around for the end (and I won’t kid you, it’s a bit of a slog getting there) may well congratulate themselves on having the fortitude to hang in there and those that do will be rewarded with a nifty ending, although I will say that Balfaro chooses to show you how the film arrived there in case you couldn’t figure it out – underestimating the intelligence of your audience is generally a bad thing. However, good endings are a lot more uncommon than you might think, so it’s always a big plus when you get one.

Balfaro does do a good job of establishing a tense atmosphere and generally resists using jump scares, although there are a couple because you almost have to have at least a few these days. However, the movie is torpedoed by two things: the dialogue, which sounds unnatural, and the acting which is by and large somewhat flat. The movie lacks energy and inertia, which is generally provided by the actors but whether they were struggling with dialogue which I can understand because it often sounds like stringing words together in ways normal people don’t, or they just didn’t feel motivated. Some of that can be laid at the feet of the director, but good actors will give memorable performances without the encouragement of a director. There is accountability to go around here.

And it really is a shame because there are a lot of good elements here, including some lovely cinematography and the unfailing politeness of the characters, although when you discover that this is a Canadian production, a light bulb might suddenly switch on, as it did for me. Sometimes, the right crew and actors coalesce to make magic happen, but sometimes just the opposite happens and this is, sadly, one of those occasions.

REASONS TO SEE: The ending is pretty inventive.
REASONS TO AVOID: Stiff and flat, rarely arouses any sort of feeling in the viewer.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexuality and nudity, horrific images and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stanton is no stranger to genre work, having appeared in the TV shows Supernatural and Lucifer.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, <a Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kindred
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
ThunderForce

Girl Lost: A Hollywood Story


Eighties flashback alert.

(2020) Drama (Breaking GlassDominique Swain, Cody Renee Cameron, Serena Maffucci, Moxie Owens, Leah Ann Cevoli, Psalms Salazar, Elizabeth Lamboy-Wilson, Emily Cheree, Christina Veronica, Thomas Haley, Mark Schaefer, Ryan Vincent, Natalie Fabrizio, Abby Latip, Leah Schaefer, Misha Suvorov, James Seaman, Corey Shane Love, Michelle Maylene. Directed by Robin Bain

 

There is a question that bedevils those that want to bring to the screen a portrayal of social ills, like sex trafficking; how do you bring that to the screen to decry exploitation without being exploitative yourself? It’s an extremely fine line and many well-meaning filmmakers are unsuccessful at navigating it.

The movie – a sequel to a 2016 movie in which the director starred – follows the stories of Hope (Owens) and Baby Girl (Salazar), the former a starry-eyed teen looking to escape an intolerable small town life with the promise of the glamor of being a model and actress, the latter a single mother with few options to feed, shelter and clothe her daughter. They are both enticed into the world of prostitution by Paige (Cameron) – Hope’s childhood babysitter – and Paige’s girlfriend Destiny (Maffucci), who are both out to make as much money as possible so that they can maintain a party hearty lifestyle.

While the exploiters turn a blind eye to the realities of the situation, the exploited deal with the psychological and physical fall-out of their profession (and not their chosen profession), falling into a spiral that they cannot escape from without outside intervention. It is the sad reality that a large number of young women have found themselves trapped in all over the globe.

Those who see prostitution as a victimless crime might come away with a different impression after seeing this. Certainly, there are some women who enter the game with both eyes wide open, and enter the trade with a plan to get out once they’ve made enough money and in fact choose to become sex workers. For many others, it is the only way out of desperation, or at least they have been convinced, either by others or themselves, of that idea. I remember a friend of mine in college who told me that if she flunked out of school (which she was in danger of doing at the time) that she would have no other choice but to become a hooker, because she had no other skills or work experience. Fortunately, she managed to stay in school. Not everyone is so fortunate, whether because of economics or other situations – not the least of which is drug addiction, which is an expensive proposition.

The question I asked earlier about walking the fine line is very applicable here because, in my opinion, Bain isn’t totally successful at walking the line between exploitation and drama. The ratio of sex acts to fall-out is probably higher than it should be; I get the commercial necessity of titillation in order to draw in an audience in order to get one’s message across, but that message is diluted by the erotic content in this case. It is further diluted by turning the story into a soap opera-esque miasma that is heavy on the suds and light on character development. It doesn’t help that the dialogue and acting are about at the level of a Cinemax late night skin flick.

That’s a shame because I think that the intentions of Bain are honorable. I am willing to give her the benefit of the doubt that she is out to call attention to a situation that year after year, continues to be ignored by society in general while the lives of hundreds of young women are destroyed, often ending in drug overdoses, murder or suicide. Happy endings, for these women, are exceedingly rare.

REASONS TO SEE: Definitely for those who loved lurid 80s softcore teen hooker porn.
REASONS TO AVOID: Takes what could be a serious subject and turns it into a turgid soap opera.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of sexuality, some nudity and drug use, as well as plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Craven’s day job is as a professor of film studies at Marlboro College in Vermont.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Angel
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Mark of the Bell Witch

Musical Comedy Whore


All the world’s an off-Broadway stage.

(2020) Musical Comedy (Breaking Glass) David Pevsner. Directed by Brendan Russo

 

David Pevsner is a Los Angeles-based actor, comedian and singer who has loved musical comedies all his life. Now, some will stereotype him as a gay man for that – and he happens to be gay – but not all gay men know the lyrics to every song in Cabaret. I suspect Pevsner might.

This one-man show, filmed live, is essentially a confessional about his life which has been sordid at times – he for some time worked as a prostitute even as he was singing on Broadway – fun at times and unbearably lonely at other times, but he narrates the details with a keen sense of humor, and an occasionally bawdy tune, accompanied only by a pianist who harmonizes with him from time to time vocally.

This isn’t for those who are squeamish about gay men having sex, because Pevsner talks about it a lot; in fact even if you’re okay with it might have a “TMI” reaction to the monologues overall, but if you bear with it and check your hang-ups at the door (or more accurately, at the streaming site) you might learn something about human nature and maybe even a little bit about yourself.

=Filmed versions of a stage show live and die by how good the audience response is; Pevsner wasn’t blessed with a particularly vocal audience and at times some of the funniest lines are met with dead silence, which doesn’t help matters much. Pevsner is an engaging performer, self-effacing and without any sort of filter. Some of the songs work, some don’t; some of the jokes work, some don’t but there is no denying that this project comes from Pevsner’s heart.

From time to time Pevsner talks about things in life that are painful, some unbearably so – like the first real relationship he was in that despite the obvious love he had for his partner (and still does, if the show is any indication), the relationship became toxic and he had to give it up. I think we’ve all been through that kind of thing – loving someone deeply who was clearly no good for us and having to give it up to save ourselves from falling apart.

Yeah, I get that at times this comes off like a therapy session for a mature queen, but it takes all types to make a world. I’ve been fortunate enough to be friends with a wide range of gay men in my time (living for 20 years in the San Francisco Bay Area makes that almost inevitable) and while not all of them are like Pevsner, some are and the world is a better place with them in it as far as I’m concerned.

=So will you like this? Well, that depends on how open-minded you are about frank discussions of a gay man’s sexual history, and whether or not you like musical comedies your own self, because there’s a lot of singing and it is very much in the vein of modern musicals. I will confess I’m more of a classicist when it comes to musical theater, but there were things about A Chorus Line that I loved and the music is in many ways in that vein, so be forewarned – this is a bit of a niche video, but if you fit into that niche, you’ll find this entertaining and enlightening.

REASONS TO SEE: Funny and poignant in equal doses.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times feels like we’re listening in on a psychotherapy session.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole mess of profanity and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The show was filmed at the Colony Theater in beautiful downtown Burbank, California.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/15/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wanda Sykes: Not Normal
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Class Action Park

Day 13


Colton comforts Rachel as an LAPD cop looks on.

(2020) Horror (Breaking Glass) Alex MacNicoll, G. Hannelius, Meyrick Murphy, JT Palmer, Martin Kove, Darlene Vogel, Shakira Ja’nai Paye, Jonathan Ohye, Harvey B. Jackson, Hollis W. Chambers, Jeremy J. Tutson, Bobby Milhouse, Lauren Donoghue. Directed by Jax Medel

We never really know what’s going on with our neighbors; we might see them to wave to as they get into their car or pick up their mail, but by-and-large we are completely clueless about what goes on behind those closed doors. Sometimes, it’s actually for the best that we don’t know.

Colton (MacNicoll) is a bored teen on summer vacation in the suburbs of L.A. who has been given the unenviable task of babysitting his bratty younger sister Rachel (Murphy) while his mom (Vogel) takes off on a two-week girl’s trip to Barcelona. Colton’s Dad took off a while ago, leaving the three of them to fend for themselves.

Colton’s buddy Michael (Palmer) is constantly trying to get him to come out and play as it were, but Colton has an unusually keen sense of responsibility for a kid his age, plus his interest has been piqued; the long-abandoned house across the street has been showing signs of life; lights flickering on and off in the darkness, shadows moving against the lights. He is a curious sort, so he spends a bundle of money on surveillance equipment and failing to find anything concrete, takes a walk over himself to investigate. There he finds Heather (Hannelius), who has just moved in with her foster father (Kove). He is instantly smitten by her but turns down his requests to go out with him; her foster father, it seems, is something of a disciplinarian.

As Colton continues to observe the house, it turns out that the foster dad is a lot more than just a disciplinarian and Colton begins to fear for Heather’s safety. He takes his concerns to the police, but they don’t believe him and he ends up with a restraining order taken out on him – perhaps the quickest in the history of California – by dear old foster dad. Colton becomes convinced that Heather is in imminent danger, but as it turns out he really has no idea of just what he’s up against.

Some critics have compared this to Rear Window and it’s true that there’s a superficial resemblance, but it ends there and it really isn’t a fair comparison; the Hitchcock film is a classic that delivers enough tension for several heart attacks and a fiendishly concocted plot that keeps the viewer guessing. It’s not fair to expect something like that from a low-budget indie film.

One of the swerves in the film (and this really isn’t too much of a spoiler) is that the movie goes from thriller to straight-out horror in the final half hour which might be a little wrenching for some viewers. It’s actually a good idea, although it has been done before, also with a teen protagonist.

Part of the biggest problem here is the character of Colton, who is very poorly written. He often does things that defy logic and common sense even for a teen – why, for example, would he be so interested in the house across the street that he is motivated to spend $600 on surveillance equipment (and where did he get the money, considering that he has no visible job). He bickers constantly with his sister and is always blowing off his friend Michael. He is clearly hung up on his father’s desertion, but never articulates it. That’s okay; teens rarely articulate things well, but for the purposes of the movie we need a little bit more fleshing out of Colton if we are to have a reasonable shot at identifying with him. MacNicoll, so capable in 13 Reasons Why, doesn’t have the experience yet to overcome this.

The movie doesn’t have a lot of special effects and those it does have are not very good. I do like the part of the film where most of the CGI shows up, but they aren’t necessarily the highlight. There is a decent twist, but it isn’t one you shouldn’t see coming. Veteran actor Kove, who cut his teeth as the villainous sensei of Cobra Kai in the Karate Kid movies (and the recent TV show) as well as in action movies like Rambo and TV shows like Cagney and Lacey.

It takes a long time for the movie to get going and once it does, it is admirably paced but by then, most viewers will have lost interest. These days, a filmmaker has to keep the pulse of the viewer pounding if they are to keep the attention of viewers who have far too many distractions in their lives as it is; you need to grab the viewer quickly and keep holding onto them until the final reel. Otherwise, you’ll get a whole lot of viewers tuning out before the final credits roll, and that is bad news for any film.

REASONS TO SEE: The ending is fairly nifty.
REASONS TO AVOID: The part of Colton isn’t particularly well-developed. Really slow in developing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some violence and some disturbing and horrific images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature length film for Medel.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AmazonAppleTVFandango NowGoogle PlayMicrosoftVimeoVuduYouTube 
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fright Night
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: The Garden Left Behind

Disclosure (2020)


The emotional heart of an unwelcome disclosure.

(2020) Drama (Breaking GlassGeraldine Hakewill, Mark Leonard Winter, Matilda Ridgway, Tom Wren, Greg Stone, Kieran Cochrane, Lucy McMurray. Directed by Michael Bentham

 

When it comes to our children, we are enormously protective. We believe in them, sometimes even against all evidence or logic; we give them the benefit of the doubt. When one child accuses another of a heinous act, the battle lines are drawn immediately and ferociously.

In this Australian drama (not to be confused with the 1994 Demi Moore/Michael Douglas erotic thriller nor the two other films – one a Netflix documentary on transgenders in cinema – with the same title coming out in 2020) we meet Danny (Winter) and Emily (Ridgway) Bowman. He’s a journalist, she’s a documentary filmmaker. When we first meet them, they are having sex and filming it. Flash forward a few years and we are in the home of Joel (Wren) and Bek (Hakewill) Chalmers. Joel is a local politician on the rise; she’s on the phone, obviously busy and harassed when we hear a piercing child’s scream coming from the bedroom. Distracted, she walks over to the room, warns her son Ethan to “leave the little ones alone” and sends him outside to play. She leaves, still on the phone. Ethan doesn’t emerge, but there’s an ominous silence coming from the room.

A few weeks later, Danny and Emily are skinny dipping in their backyard pool when Joel and Bek show up unexpectedly at their door, with Joel’s bodyguard (Stone) in tow. There is tension between the two couples, who have been close friends up to now and we soon find out why. The four-year-old daughter of Danny and Emily has told them that Ethan, the nine-year-old son of Joel and Bek, has done something terrible (and presumably, sexual) to her. Tom and Bek are there to plead with the Bowmans to take Ethan’s name out of the paperwork; Danny and Emily want Ethan to be seen by a therapist. Bek is particularly adamant against it – Ethan has denied the girl’s account. Bek, who suffered serial sexual abuse as a child, is particularly sensitive about the accusation. Emily is horrified that Bek doesn’t believe her daughter.

The discussions go from civilized to strained to frantic to violent as both couples stand their ground in defense of their kids. As things devolve, we get the sense that there is an awful lot of adult baggage being dragged into the argument which is, ostensibly, supposed to be about the welfare of their children.

This is an emotional film which only grows more so. At first, it is the women who react emotionally and, to a certain extent, non-logically. The men seem to be calmer and more conciliatory, wanting to work things out without damaging the friendship the two couples have built. The women are willing to burn the mofo right to the ground.

First time filmmaker Bentham has a good eye, contrasting the rural/suburban idyllic neighborhood, studded with pools and lush greenery with the ugliness of the innuendo cast in both directions by the parents whose civility slowly goes out the window over the course of the film. Hakewill in particular, playing the brittle and shrill Bek, does a marvelous job although all of the other main performers do a crackerjack job as well.

The ending was a little bit of a letdown; Bentham had played things straight pretty much throughout but there’s an almost comedic element to the denouement that doesn’t jive with the rest of the film; I was left wondering if it was meant to be symbolic of something (which I don’t want to get into so as not to spoil it) and in the end, decided that it was, but you may disagree and that’s perfectly legitimate.

This reminded me strongly of Roman Polanski’s 2011 filmed version of the Yasmina Reza stage play, with a sexual element added. That film had a more stage-y quality to it, although there are moments where this feels like it might have been based on a play as well. It is nevertheless an impressive work that has floated under the radar, but deserves far more attention than it has gotten to date (there isn’t even a page on Rotten Tomatoes for the film). For those film buffs still in quarantine looking for something different, this is one to keep in mind. It’s out on VOD now; it can be purchased on Blu-Ray next Tuesday (go to the film’s page to find out where it will be available in the U.S.).

REASONS TO SEE: Covers a wrenching topic from both points of view. Uses thriller tropes to tell a dramatic story.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a bit awkward and unsatisfying.
FAMILY VALUES: There is graphic sex, brief nudity, plenty of profanity and uncomfortable sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Bentham’s debut feature.
BEYOND THE THEATER: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Carnage
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Denise Ho: Becoming the Song

This Teacher


Sign of the times.

 (2019) Thriller (Breaking GlassHafsia Herzi, Sarah Kazemy, Kevin Kane, Lucy Walters, Gabe Fazio, Lev Gorn, Lawrence Novak, Rebekah Del Rio. Directed by Mark Jackson

 

We don’t always get to choose how we are defined. We may see ourselves one way,  but the world insists on putting its labels and prejudices on us. A beautiful French Muslim girl, therefore, is looked at as a hijab-wearing potential terrorist despite the fact wshe doesn’t wear a hijab nor does she seem interested in detonating bombs.

Hafsia (Herzi) has taken up her friend Zarah’s (Kazemy) offer to visit her in New York, paying for Hafsia’s plane ticket. Zarah is now an actress, living with Heath, a much older rich white man (Fazio) and essentially turning her back on her past, drinking, wearing revealing dresses and Westernizing her name to Sarah. Hafsia, for her part, has remained provincial, a cashier in a bakery who, as Zarah tells her partner late one night, smells bad, like the world Zarah fled. Zarah is unaware that Hafsia can hear her.

With the reunion between the two childhood friends going catastrophically, Hafsia arranges to rent a cabin in upstate New York, taking Zarah’s identity as well, professing to be a nurse (the profession Zarah was in before she came to America) and living the rustic life in the woods, with no electricity and an outhouse in the back. Her mental state, always fragile, begins to unravel. She meets a couple – teacher Rose (Walters) and cop Darren (Kane) – in an adjacent property and is cajoled into drinking with them. Thus she begins an education into what being a Muslim in America in the third decade of the 21st century entails.

Herzi gives a marvelous performance; sometimes she seems so withdrawn that her physical body language makes it appear as if she’s scrunched into herself. Other times, she is shrieking in fury. Never do her actions feel forced, but there are times, particularly during the third act when she is let down by a script that is too strident by half.

Jackson clearly has a bone to pick with the attitudes of Americans at this time in history (not that I blame him), so when Hafsia attends a party that Zarah and Heath throw, she encounters the kind of subtle, condescending racism that is most often displayed by people who probably don’t think of themselves as racist at all. It’s what you might call “white liberal rednecks” in action.

There’s some lovely cinematography and the score is pretty decent; the problem here is that third act when the movie loses the good will it’s built up and instead of making points that resonate, turns into essentially a diatribe against white Christian privilege and while I don’t have an issue with that – there’s an awful lot of that going around lately – I found it literally to be oppressive in a different way. There is a point when if someone screams at you long enough, you just stop listening and it all becomes background noise. I fear that this film has reached that point.

REASONS TO SEE: A gripping performance by Herzi.
REASONS TO AVOID: The last half hour is just off the rails.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of profanity as well as some sexual situations and frank sexual discussions.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Executive producer Reed Morano, best known for his work producing A Handmaid’s Tale, was Director of Photography on Jackson’s last film War Story.
BEYOND THE THEATER: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/12//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Woman Under the Influence
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Sharkwater Extinction

Abe


MasterChef, Junior.

(2019) Family (Blue Fox/Breaking Glass) Noah Schnapp Seu Jorge, Dagmara Dominczyk, Arian Moayed, Mark Margolis, Tom Mardirosian, Salem Murphy, Daniel Oreskes, Gero Carillo Victor Mendes, Ildi Silva, Devin Henry, Steve Routman, Josh Elliiott Pickel, Alexander Hodge, Debargo Sanyal, Teddy Coluca, Jorja Brown, Troy Valjean Rucker, Vivian Adams. Directed by Fernando Grostein Andrade

 

There are equalizers that remind us that we all are human regardless of our cultural, ethnic and religious differences; music is one. Family is another. Food is a third.

Abe (Schnapp) knows all about those differences. His father (Moayed) is an atheist whose parents are devout Palestinian Muslims. His mother (Dominczyk) comes from a Jewish family from Israel. Family gatherings, like Abe’s twelfth birthday, are a little bit like the Seven Days War at the dinner table. For the love of Pete, even a discussion of hummus can turn into a knock-down, drag-out fight.

Abe – whose Israeli grandfather (Margolis) calls him Avraham, his other calls him Abraham and his paternal grandfather (Mardirosian) and grandmother (Murphy) call him Ibrahim – prefers just plain old Abe, and plain old Abe is just plain old nuts about food. He’s a twelve-year-old foodie, interested in trying out new things, new tastes and he lives in the perfect place in all the world for that – Brooklyn. He longs to become a chef, uniting cuisines and hopefully, in doing so, uniting people. Like his family, for instance.

His parents, too busy making decisions about his life without really listening to him, particularly his stubborn father who refuses to allow any other school of thought other than his own enter Abe’s sphere of consciousness. All Abe wants to do is cook. His parents, meaning well, want to send him to summer camp but the cooking camp they send him to is pretty remedial. He chooses to give this camp a miss.

Abe, like a lot of kids his age, is Internet-savvy and there’s a chef on Instagram who is an up-and-coming king of fusion. Chef Chico (Seu) is a Brazilian who brings bold flavors to his food. Abe seeks him out and pesters him into giving him a job so that Abe can learn from him. At first, the job consists mainly of taking out the trash but Abe picks up on things, eventually taking his grandmother’s recipe for lamb shawarma in to make tacos for the crew meal. Chico is actually impressed.

&His parents are not, however, when they learn what Abe has been up to. All the stress of familial pressures has been tearing his mom and dad apart and they separate. Abe is devastated; he looks to reunite his fractured family with a Thanksgiving meal featuring the flavors of both countries, but can a conflict nobody has been able to solve be settled over a meal of turkey and falafel?

Well, no, but that won’t stop this movie from letting you think that it can. I admit, food is a powerful thing, bringing emotions and memories of home to the fore, but for most of us, we are aware that some differences can’t be settled simply. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t send the message that it can, but it does send a message that people can have their minds opened up, which is the first step towards understanding which in turn is the first step towards peace.

For a movie about a foodie, there isn’t as much food porn as I thought there’d be, which is actually kinda nice. I didn’t leave this movie particularly jonesing for falafel, hummus or shawarma. Not even for ramen tacos, which is Abe’s first attempt at fusion.

Schnapp, whom Netflix viewers might recognize from Stranger Things, does a pretty credible job considering that the role is kind of Afterschool Special plucky kid 101. Abe is likable and Schnapp brings that across; he is also anguished that everything he does seems to offend one side of the family or another, and I can actually sympathize with his plight. It is every adolescent nightmare, but in Abe’s case it is literally true.

Andrade, directing his first American movie (it’s actually a co-production with Brazil), uses what is becoming a new cliché in showing the smartphone screens of Abe’s various searches and chat programs, which actually takes you out of the story a little bit. While I agree that if you’re going to show a typical 12-year-old kid in 2020, you’re going to have to show him/her having on online life, the way it is done here becomes somewhat intrusive, as does the Latin-tinged score. The comedy here, while gentle, feels forced and the ending is a bit too sitcom-style pat with everyone sitting to a meal together.

This is an appropriate movie for kids, but if I were you parents, I wouldn’t tell them what it’s about. They might not want to see it based on the description, but they will probably end up getting a kick out of it, although I might warn them that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict isn’t going to be settled over a good meal. Nonetheless it is a pretty decent family film that can be enjoyed over a nice bowl of popcorn; how you choose to season it is up to you.

REASONS TO SEE: Does tackle some serious subjects in a non-threatening manner.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit self-aware, a little too pat, a little too forced.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Margolis and Mardirosian, who play Israeli and Palestinian patriarchs here, both played prisoners in the hit HBO series Oz.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews; Metacritic: 62/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Samuel Project
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Polar

Union Bridge


On his way to a “Reopen the Economy” protest.

(2019) Thriller (Breaking Glass) Scott Friend, Emma Duncan, Alex Breaux, Elisabeth Noone, Nancy Linden, Kevin Murray, Samantha Trionfo, Lateicia Ford, Jean Miller, Tim R. Worley, Bobby J. Brown, David Cohen, Andy Hopper, Bolton Marsh, David Cohen, Grant Garson, Graydon Hipple, Dan Verkman, Teresa Majorwicz. Directed by Brian Levin

 

There is an aphorism that goes “some things should stay buried.” In this film, that’s a literal truth. Unfortunately, it’s the only literal thing in the movie.

Will Shipe (Friend) returns to his small southern town following years of living and working in the City (doesn’t matter which one). His father has recently passed on and his shrewish mother (Noone) is essentially just as happy the old codger is gone. Now, maybe Will can get their family back into the prominence it has always deserved.

Of course, returning home means returning to those you grew up with, and for Will that includes his former best friend Nick Taylor (Breaux). However, Nick has become slightly unhinged; he sees visions of buried Confederate gold and spends his nights digging for it. He also has a hair-trigger and carries a gu around with him, never a good sign. Will’s Mom wants Will to stay as far away from Nick as he can, but not before he convinces Nick to stop digging. Mommy dearest, you see, is concerned that along with the gold Nick will dig up a secret that’s been buried since the Civil War – one that will destroy both the Taylor family and the Shipe family as well.

Things are kind of odd in Union Bridge beyond Nick; Nick’s cousin Mary (Duncan), whom Will used to date in high school, has taken up witchcraft. And while everyone seems pleased to see Will back, there’s an undercurrent that makes Will feel uneasy. And when he starts seeing the same visions that Nick has been seeing, well, you know what happens when the going gets weird – the weird go shopping. Or digging, as the case may be.

I tend to be the sort of critic who prefers efficient storytelling. Brevity is my watchword, and when a filmmaker can give me a story with a minimum of extraneous material, I tend to be more impressed. This is not that sort of movie. Now, some people revel in more detail. This is not that kind of movie either; there are a lot of images shown just for the sake of showing them; they have little or nothing to do with the story or the film and they can be jarring. That in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it isn’t something that I’m personally into, so take my objections with a grain of salt.

The discordant score adds to the off-putting and off-kilter feel. Levin is certainly not above thinking outside the box and that’s to be commended, but here he’s doing it to the detriment of the story, which becomes a slog to sit through. There are some moments that are Shirley Jackson-esque but not enough of them to really hold this film together.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some moments of Southern Gothic goodness.
REASONS TO AVOID: Incomprehensible in places and poorly paced. The characters don’t exactly invite me to spend a pleasant 90 minutes with them.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, the original creators of the Spider-Man comic, passed away during production of the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mud
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Destroyer

Fairytale (Favola)


An All-American housewife.

(2017) Comedy (Breaking GlassFilippo Timi, Lucia Mascino, Piera Degli Esposti, Luca Santagostino, Sergio Albelli. Directed by Sebastiano Mauri

 

The Fifties were a decade here in the United States that in many ways symbolizes a kinder, gentler era; everyone liked Ike, prosperity after the war was undeniable and so long as you were white and straight, you had a pretty decent life just about guaranteed. America was indeed, the beautiful back then.

Mrs. Fairytale (Timi) lives in a bright, modern home that is packed to the gills with kitsch and alcohol. Her husband (Santasostino) leaves for work every morning, leaving her to clean house, cook dinner, commiserate with fellow housewife Mrs. Emerald (Mascino) and adore her poodle Lady (pronounced “Lye-dee” in this Italian-language film) who happens to be stuffed. She also spends time fending off the Stuart triplets (Albelli), all of whom want to get into her panties by hook or by crook – the movie doesn’t hesitate to get into the darker side of the decade, including spousal abuse and alcoholism.

That’s not the only thing that’s off-kilter in this comedy, in which the view out of one set of windows is a New York-like skyline and out another set, a Southwestern desert. Mrs. Fairytale is played in drag by Timi, who also co-wrote the adaptation of his original play; the director is his husband, Mauri who is making his feature directing debut.

Many critics are hailing that the lead role in drag is played by a gay man, which makes for a better understanding of the drag queen culture. I will be honest; I’m not so sure the role is meant to be a drag queen; the oddball story involves invading UFOs who may or may not have changed Mrs. Fairytale’s sex from feminine to masculine. The role is not meant to be an object of fun, like so many drag roles in mainstream movies tend to be, but is meant to be a matter-of-fact depiction of a male actor in a female role. Of late we’ve seen some female actresses playing male characters; I don’t see why the favor shouldn’t be returned.

The movie keeps you off-balance from beginning to end in the most delightful way, all the while remaining true to its aesthetic, and what an aesthetic it is – the production design by Dmitri Capuani is absolutely pitch-perfect, setting the tone for the movie’s eccentric plot, while the set décor by Alessia Anfuso is to die for – I know a lot of devotees of Fifties kitsch culture will be jealous. The costumes by Fabio Zambernardi are positively sumptuous and will have those who love hunting for vintage dressing in thrift stores positively green with envy.

Not everybody is going to love this. It is admittedly willfully weird, but then again, who doesn’t need a little weirdness every now and again, particularly now when confusion is the new normal. If there’s an objection to be had about this delightful film, it’s that it is awfully stagey, even though I think that it intentional on the filmmakers’ part. Still, it feels sometimes like you’re waiting for the rest of the audience to react and that’s not a good thing when you’re watching this while cloistered at home. Fans of LGBTQ cinema should definitely seek this out, but anyone out for a good laugh in a bizarre kitschy atmosphere should love this too.

REASONS TO SEE: Willfully strange and imaginative. Wonderful production design.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not everyone will get this.
FAMILY VALUES: There are sexual situations and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is an adaptation of a play originally written by Timi.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Serial Mom
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Mule

South Mountain


The happy family in twilight.

(2019) Drama (Breaking GlassTalia Balsam, Scott Cohen, Andrus Nichols, Michael Oberholtzer, Nala Gonzalez Norvind, Macaulee Cassaday, Guthrie Mass, Midori Francis, Violet Rea, Isis Masoud. Directed by Hilary Brougher

 

The stillness of a mountain retreat can sometimes hide the sounds of hearts breaking. This impressive film of a woman evolving after a major blow to her self-worth raises a question: why isn’t Hilary Brougher not getting the kind of attention that is usually reserved for can’t-miss phenoms – because she is certainly that.

Lila (Balsam) lives in a pleasant home in the Catskills. She is an art teacher and her husband Edgar (Cohen) writes screenplays. At a barbecue attended by friends, including her bestie Gigi (Nichols) who is battling breast cancer has come over for an early summer barbecue, as Lila and Edgar’s daughters Dara (Norvind) and Sam (Cassaday) – from Sam’s previous marriage – are getting set to leave Dodge for the summer. In the midst of this, Edgar takes a business phone call in the couple’s bedroom. Lila is a bit put out by this.

You can only imagine how put out she’d be if she knew the real reason for the call; Edgar has been having an affair with Emme (Francis) who is at that moment giving birth to their son. Shortly thereafter, Edgar informs Lila that he’s started a new family and he’s moving out.

We discover this isn’t the first time that Edgar has messed around on Lila. It isn’t even the first time he’s fooled around with Emme. We are informed that the last time Lila found out about Edgar’s peccadillos, she had something of a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. Lila assures Gigi that she’s fine, and then shortly after when Edgar arrives to move out some of his stuff, Lila allows her rage to manifest in an unexpected way.

For the most part, Lila is fairly reserved but she has her moments when she boils over and her true feelings come to the fore. She ends up having an affair with Jonah (Oberholtzer) – a very handsome young man who looks like he could be a lost Skarsgård brother – which ends almost as quickly as it begins. Eventually Lila realizes that she needs to pull herself up by the bootstraps and figure out who she is, who she wants to be and how she’s going to get there. For the first time, her focus is strictly on her own needs.

Brougher benefits from some beautiful cinematography courtesy of her husband, Ethan Mass which shows off the idyllic Catskills during a languid summer season. There is also a familiarity about the family home; it belongs to Brougher’s mother and the actors playing two of the children in the movie are her own.  All of this adds up to making the movie feel especially intimate.

Balsam is not normally a lead actress, although she has had a fine career making the most of smaller roles. She does look a little awkward in the scene where her and Jonah feel the sparks fly but other than that her performance is spot-on and raises some legitimacy for the idea that she should be getting larger roles. She is certainly the glue that holds together the picture here.

If I have a beef with the movie, it’s that it occasionally feels like it’s cheating a bit, sinking into clichés regarding Lila’s sexual life. I get that women react to this kind of blow in different ways but there are a couple of moves that Lila makes that seem out of character for her but I suppose that if my wife left me after multiple infidelities I’d probably act a little bit out of character also.

The movie is coming out on VOD at the perfect time. We’re headed into the summer and the heat and the sweet summer wind are perfect backgrounds for this film. Also, given that people are being forced to look for entertainment a little bit harder right now while the quarantine is still pretty much in effect, perhaps that will lead to people discovering this gem who ordinarily would not have. That can’t be a bad thing, as far as I’m concerned.

REASONS TO SEE: The cinematography is impressive.
REASONS TO AVOID: Descends into occasional predictability.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of sexuality, some brief nudity, profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Balsam is the daughter of legendary actor Martin Balsam and actress Joyce van Patten.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Queen of Hearts
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Postcards From London