The Birthday Cake


A different kind of birthday candle.

(2021) Drama (Screen Media) Shiloh Fernandez, Val Kilmer, Ewan McGregor, William Fichtner, Lorraine Bracco, Jeremy Allen White, Emory Cohen, Vincent Pastore, David Mazouz, Ashley Benson, John Magaro, Nick Vallelonga, Penn Badgley, Franky G, Ruben Rivera, Luis Guzmán, Aldis Hodge, Jake Weary, Clara McGregor. Paul Sorvino, Joseph D’Onofrio, Tyler Dean Flores, Emily Tremaine. Directed by Jimmy Giannopoulos

 

“The neighborhood is changing” is a lament that we hear just about everywhere. It shouldn’t come as a surprise though; neighborhoods are always changing. People move out, more people move in, as they say, change is inevitable but growth is optional.

For Gio (Mazouz), he is the son of a family that is, as it is euphemistically put, “connected.” On his mother’s side, though; his father is not and it is his father he takes after; gentle, desiring to walk the straight and narrow. When some Russian kids give him a black eye, is cousin Leo (Cohen) urges him to scare the bejesus out of them by pointing a gun at them. Some of the kids run off but one, seeing that there is no way in Hell Gio is ever going to pull the trigger, beats the heck out of him even more.

Ten years later, a now grown Gio (Fernandez) remains hopelessly naïve. His cousin Leo has just returned from prison, but it is not a happy homecoming; everyone is looking for him, and not to congratulate him on his release. Leo is in hiding, and Gio, as Leo always has protected him, now protects his cousin.

It is the occasion of his Uncle Angelo’s (Kilmer) birthday and also the tenth anniversary of his father’s death – he was found strangled in the trunk of is own car. As she traditionally does to mark both occasions, his mother (Bracco) has baked a cake and insists that Gio deliver it, but first reminds him to stop by the church and light a candle for his father. Gio is reluctant to do that; while Father Kelly (E. McGregor) means well, Gio has a lot going on, including getting together with his cousin.

As Gio walks through the Brooklyn neighborhood to get to his Uncle’s house, he meets up with a number of neighborhood friends and family, all inquiring about Leo. He also meets a couple of federal agents and some Puerto Rican and African-American gangsters who also want to see Leo – preferably bleeding profusely. One thing is clear; Uncle Angelo, the crime boss who has run the neighborhood for years, is losing his control.

Once at his house, there is concern that Leo is talking to the Feds and Uncle Ricardo (Fichtner), a crooked cop, is particularly insistent on Leo’s whereabouts, although Vito (Pastore), Angelo’s right hand man, is a bit more diplomatic about it. Clearly Leo has transgressed and there are a number of people out for his blood. Can Gio stay clear of all this and be the good young man his mother wants him to be?

The film has been characterized as a story in which Gio learns to become a man, although it is unclear if he has done so by the film’s end – I suppose it would depend on what your definition of a man is. Giannopoulos, making his feature film debut as a director, has assembled an impressive cast although that is a bit misleading; many of them have little or no screen time. Sorvino, for example, has exactly one line and is confined to a chair for his two scenes. Ewan McGregor, who is near the top of the cast list, is onscreen for probably about five minutes total, split between the movie’s beginning and end, although he does provide voiceover narration for most of the film. Bracco also has just two scenes, although she is memorable in her few moments. Guzmán is in just one scene as a dope-smoking cabbie.

On the other hand, Fernandez is in nearly every scene, other than the prologue in which Mazouz plays the younger version of Gio. He tends to be a laid-back actor and doesn’t give over to histrionics, although he is plenty adept at projecting emotion through facial expression and body language. Gio has tended to be a bit of a wimp throughout his life, but is showing signs that he is ready to stand up for himself – and in the film’s climax, he is forced to do so to a certain extent. I’m not sure if it represents a life change for Gio, but it does show the character in a different light.

It is also true that the movie is for the most part really well-written. Although I think the conceit that Gio is the only one in the neighborhood who isn’t aware of how his father really died is a bit unrealistic, there are some pretty slick curves in the film and there is a reason that Gio’s mom made a chocolate cake when she knows her son is allergic to chocolate. There’s a certain elegance to what happens in an almost Scorsese-like turn.

Setting the film at Christmas time is inspired; New York really sparkles at that time of year, and clearly Giannopoulos loves the city and Brooklyn in particular. Some might squirm at Italian stereotypes that are carried on here, but fuhgeddaboutit. There are also allusions to the importance of family and loyalty, but we also see the flip side of that.

All in all, this is a much better movie than I expected. I was a little surprised at the low RT score it got, but you never know with critics. We can be an ornery bunch. Don’t let that fool you; this is a movie well-worth checking out, particularly if you love mob movies set in Brooklyn.

REASONS TO SEE: Surprisingly well-written for a crime melodrama. A great cast with a few folks who don’t get enough big screen roles of late. Nice touch to set it at Christmastime.
REASONS TO AVOID: A great cast but many of the bigger names are only onscreen for a few minutes, some with almost no dialogue.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity, drug use and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was co-written by Giannopoulos and Fernandez (as well as Paul Bermudez).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 27% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Bronx Tale
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
A Man Called Bulger

Farewell Amor


Dance like nobody’s watching.

(2020) Drama (IFC) Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Zainab Jah, Jayme Lawson, Joie Lee, Nana Mensah, Marcus Scribner, Brandon Lamar, Joy Batra, Francisco Burgos, Mariam C. Chemmoss, Virginia Hastings, Majah Hype, Joel Michaely, Chrisanthos Petsilas, Howie Sheard, Terrence Shingler, Rayshawn Richardson, Imani Lewis, Kristen Maxwell. Directed by Ekwa Msangi

 

Often we don’t consider the human cost of what goes on in those news snippets on CNN. You know the sort; some correspondent in a utility vest in some country that is at war with itself talking about this militia group or that government army. Caught in the middle are millions of civilians, who often have to flee their war-torn countries to survive. Often, that means families being separated, sometimes for unconscionably long periods.

Walter (Mwine) left the civil war in Angola for the United States, leaving his wife Esther (Jah) and daughter Sylvia (Lawson) – the daughter he barely knew – to try and forge a good life for his family. But seventeen long years passed as the paperwork for their emigration slowly churned through the system. When at last they were reunited at New York’s JFK Airport, they were literally strangers to one another, despite Esther’s exclaimed “Amor!” (the French word for love which can often be taken as “My love”) when first they meet.

They have all changed. Sylvia misses her friends in Dar es Salaam where she and her mother fled to. She isn’t sure how she fits in here in Brooklyn. There is a guy, DJ (Scribner) in her class who thinks she’s amazing. He watches her dancing in the street – she loves to dance – and knows she’s a natural for the high school step dancing team, but she’s not so sure.

Esther has found religion and not just Christianity but a rigid, evangelical Christianity that begins to show through. She disapproves of the decadence in America and her daughter’s desire to be a dancer? “I refused to lose my daughter to America!” she shouts, forbidding her daughter from joining the dance team or to do any sort of activity other than to attend church. It is driving a wedge between Esther and Walter.

As for Walter, he hasn’t been a saint over the past 17 years. While Esther makes friends with a spirited neighbor (Lee), Walter misses the woman (Mensah) who lived with him and was his lover while Esther was in Africa. Esther discovers what Walter had been up to, and is trying to reconcile the old Walter with the new. Will this family survive being reunited?

First-time feature filmmaker Msangi based this on a short film she did several years ago, and she shows herself to be a talent to be reckoned with. This is a film about real people, dealing with real issues. She clearly has an affection for Brooklyn, because she portrays it as a truly wonderful place. She also coaxes some truly affecting performances out of all of her cast members. I can’t recall a movie this year in which the cast was as flawless as this one.

The movie is vibrant, alive with the love of music and dance that Walter and Sylvia (and to a lesser extent, Esther) share. There is also a melancholy of people struggling to figure out how they fit in, where the fit in and feeling alone in a crowd. I think we’ve all gone through that at some point or another, making the movie eminently relatable on a personal level.

Msangi wants us to see the movie from the viewpoint of all three characters, so she divides the movie into three different chapters in which each character is basically the lead of their own chapter. Yes, that does give us an insight into all three of the family members we might not have otherwise had, but it is a little bit of a misstep; we spend the movie going over the same events through the points of view of three different characters and although everyone’s viewpoint is different, it still feels like we’re watching a rerun to a certain extent. I’m not sure how she could have handled it differently to achieve the same aim; I just know that this didn’t work as well as I think she intended.

Still, that doesn’t detract from what is a powerful and essential movie, for sure one that you won’t want to miss. Not only does it give us an insight into the refugee problem, it gives us insight into family dynamics that is different than what we’re used to. I can’t praise this movie enough.

REASONS TO SEE: There is an authenticity here that’s hard to achieve. The music is amazing. Strong performances top to bottom.
REASONS TO AVOID: The Rashomon effect gives us a sense like we’re watching the same movie over and over and over again – because we are.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The United States hosts more international migrants than any other country on Earth, about 19% of the total world’s population.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: First They Killed My Father
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan

The Outside Story


From the inside out.

(2020) Dramedy (Sub-Genre MediaBrian Tyree Henry, Sonequa Martin-Green, Sunita Mani, Olivia Edward, Asia Kate Dillon, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Michael Cyril Creighton, Matthew Maher, Hannah Bos, Maria Dizzia, Jordan Carlos, Lynda Gravatt, Paul Thureen, Nadia Bowers, John Esposito, Fernando Mateo Jr., Chris Roberti, Rick D. Wasserman, Jordan Kenneth Camp, Suzette Gunn. Directed by Casimir Nozkowski

Our society has become increasingly introverted. Socializing has almost become anathema, especially now that there’s a deadly virus out there (which wasn’t the case when this was filmed). We live and die by our smart phones; we eat meals that are delivered to us. Our groceries are delivered to us. Many of us work at home, even before the pandemic. The need to be around other people is seemingly being bred out of us.

Charles Young (Henry) is at a crossroads in his life. He’s a film editor who works for TCM; whenever a star of yesteryear dies, he’s the one who assembles an “In Memoriam” feature to run for the channel. In a particularly morbid twist, the network keeps a number of these features on hand for stars who are aged enough or infirm enough that they might be next for the “In Memoriam” treatment. Charles finds this morbid, but not enough to switch jobs.

He once was a documentary film maker and has started avoiding friends who ask about the project he was working on. That’s kind of a sore point with him. He has a nice brownstone in Brooklyn where he lives and works. His girlfriend, Isha (Martin-Green) also lives there – until today. You see, she cheated on Charles, which she admitted to and apologized for. “It was a mistake,” she noted. Charles, however, can’t get past the thought of her with – in this case – another woman, and has broken up with her and asked her to move out.

Charles has been tasked with moving her car regularly so she doesn’t get a parking ticket until she comes to fetch her car and her things. When a delivery man (Carlos) brings over his favorite take-out Mexican, he accidentally brings her car keys instead of the house keys and ends up locked out of his apartment. With Isha possessing the other set of keys and not available until later, he at first tries climbing out on the fire escape to get in his window, but it’s locked. About to break his way in, the police officer (Mani) who has been issuing parking tickets all up and down the street stops him. Having run out without shoes or identification, he finds himself having to reach out to strangers – that he has lived alongside for years but never bothered to meet – to help him get in, especially since he has a deadline fast approaching.

Henry is a big, likable teddy bear of  a guy and after years of being a supporting player gets to shine on his own, and he makes the most of his opportunity. His comic timing is right on (he gets the best line of the film, as he is being arrested for trying to sneak into his own apartment before being rescued at the last minute and exclaiming “I couldn’t hear you over the injustice,” which about sums up our times). I hope Hollywood casting directors sit up and take notice; he should be getting bigger roles and more lead roles as well.

Usually one doesn’t notice the editing of a film, but it is surprisingly noticeable here – maybe because the lead character is a film editor. It’s choppy and abrupt, which is jarring at times. With a little bit of care, it wouldn’t have been a problem and when your lead character is in that particular line of work, it calls attention to the deficiency a little more broadly.

Star Trek fans will note the presence of Sonequa Martin-Green of Star Trek: Discovery in the cast, but she is sadly underutilized here – perhaps she was busy filming Season 3 of the CBS All-Access series at the time. She shines when she’s onscreen, and hopefully we’ll see more of her in coming years. For my money, she’s even better here than she is as the cold, logical Burnham.

The movie does point out how isolated we’ve become as a society, with neighbors scarcely knowing each other (although everyone seems to know the more outgoing Isha). Even in New York, perhaps the most densely packed city in the country, there is that sense of people living in cocoons. That tendency has been exacerbated lately; chances are that it is going to continue to evolve in that direction, at least for the time being. At some point, the human need for socializing is going to outweigh the need for convenience.

Some movies are suited for rainy day viewing, and this one fits the bill to a “T.” It’s the kind of movie you want to watch in your stocking feet, with a warm blanket pulled over you and a bowl of your favorite snacks within arm’s length – and perhaps with your own sweetie cuddled against you. I can think of few better ways to spend an afternoon.

REASONS TO SEE: Henry is extremely likable. A great commentary on how isolated our lives have become even before the pandemic.
REASONS TO AVOID: The editing is a bit choppy, which is somewhat ironic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its debut at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sparrow’s Dance
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Greta

The Grand Unified Theory of Howard Bloom


Not your ordinary publicist.

(2019) Documentary (1091Howard Bloom, Lashette Williams, Jeff Bridges, Joan Jett, Kenny Laguna, Ted Coons, Kyle McLaughlin, David Sloan Williams, Sruan Pal Singh, Amir Saddiqui. Directed by Charlie Hoxie

 

We are generally so caught up in our own lives that we really only comprehend the things that are an immediate part of those lives – the need to provide shelter, food and the basics, the relationships we are in, the news of the day and whatever drama is playing out in our lives or in social media.

It takes a good deal of discipline to look away from the minutiae of our lives and to concentrate on the bigger picture. The questions that are most important – who are we, what is our place in the universe, how do we interact with the universe, why must we die – we rarely have time to address those  issues and even if we do, we rarely have the knowledge or intellect required to address those questions intelligently.

Howard Bloom sees things differently. In the 70s and 80s, he was a publicist in the music business, with a client list that included Michael Jackson, Prince, Styx, ZZ Top, Joan Jett, Run-DMC, Billy Joel and AC/DC, among many others. He was considered the best in the business at what he did. He had a company that was making money hand over fist and he hung out with the elite of pop music. That all ended in 1988 when he contracted Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, an insidious disease that left him bedridden for more than a decade, barely able to tolerate human company.

Bloom combated his disease with his intellect. If he couldn’t move, he could think. He began to find things that improved his situation little by little, medications and exercise. Gradually, he was able to bring himself to a semblance of a normal life through rigid self-discipline and keeping to a routine. His wife may have divorced him but he found solace in looking outward at the cosmos. He began writing books on various aspects of the human condition, including creation, Islamic fundamentalism, and the colonization of space. His world began to expand from the four walls of his bedroom in a Brooklyn brownstone to the limits of the universe itself.

This documentary is a look at the now 74-year-old author (as of the filming of the documentary) and he has an interesting, quirky nature with vocal patterns that remind me of Jeff Goldblum. He also has a sonorous voice, not unlike another famous Howard, DJ Howard Stern. He has interesting stories to tell, and a unique viewpoint. He shoots from the hip and if that at times can be grating (at one point he likens graduate school as an “Auschwitz of the mind”), but he is also capable of some really interesting concepts (“Maybe we’re not alive to achieve goals; maybe we’re alive to just pursue them”).

We don’t get a lot of information about what is in Howard’s grand theory; we know that he has compiled thousands of pages of documents detailing his thoughts. He is also concerned about his own mortality, and is anxious that his work be preserved and has engaged a friend, Dubai gym owner Amir Saddiqui, to execute his will when he passes. Howard is nothing if not eclectic in the composition of his inner circle.

Mostly, we hear Howard talking about Howard and even though the film is barely over an hour in length, it does start to sound a bit like an ego trip gone digital after awhile. I don’t believe that’s necessarily what he was aiming for but I think he is really using this as a means to steer people towards his books of which there are seven currently. He comes off as pretty likable (and he does admit to wanting to be liked, which seems to me to be a fairly common attitude for us primates with delusions of grandeur) and he definitely likes dogs and often stops to hug them while out and about. That’s my kind of guy, for certain.

REASONS TO SEE: Some of the concepts are fascinating.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit too much Howard, not enough Grand Theory.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bloom contracted Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in 1988. He didn’t leave his apartment again until 2000.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Brief History of Time
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Feral (2019)


All the best feral people ride the bus.

(2019) Drama (1091) Annapurna Srinam, Kevin Hoffman, Doug Drucker, Lori Bullock, Jonathan Rentler, Annie Henk, Francis Lyons, Bene Coopersmith, Aurora Flores, Sonia Mena, Enoch Tsumuraya, Kimberly Smith, Sarah Wharton, Bryan Amato, Jeremy Sevelovitz, Matt Stango, Marcus Wright, Nicole Neretin, Adam Soltis, Mary Lu Garmone, Kirsten Hess, Lassen Davis, Emma Hall-Martin. Directed by Andrew Wonder

 

The streets are an unforgiving place. Surviving on them is no picnic, particularly when you are homeless. You are vulnerable every minute of every day and survival isn’t guaranteed. If the hunger doesn’t get you, the violence will; if the violence doesn’t get you, the weather will.

Yazmine (Srinam) lives on the streets of Brooklyn, or more to the point, under them. She has made herself a nest in an abandoned power station off the subway line and it is there that she stores what few possessions she has. It is there she sleeps, sometimes with rats scurrying about.

When she ventures out, she looks like anyone else; clean and reasonably dressed. This is an advantage; it gets her picked up by a compassionate musician (Hoffman) who bonds with her over a slice of pizza, then takes her to his place. When she convinces him to take a shower, she empties his wallet and takes some of his precious LPs. That’s survival, baby, and it ain’t pretty.

A young mother (Wharton) confesses that she wishes her little boy would run away; Yazmine listens compassionately, only to have a meltdown when the privileged brat steals a meaningless plastic dinosaur from her purse. A middle-aged Latina woman (Flores) reminisces about her days dancing in salsa clubs, even getting Yazmine to dance with her. However, she also calls a homeless shelter to take Yazmine in – not on her terms, but on theirs – which leads to an unforgettable final scene.

The movie is a mix of styles, both narrative and documentary. Wonder occasionally interrupts his film with interviews with people who are or were homeless, including an interview with Yazmine herself. We see Yazmine getting jumped and beaten up by a group of drunken frat-boy types, and refusing help from counselors and medical professionals. We learn only near the end that her mother was deported when Yazmine was 16; her story is heartbreaking when you finally hear it. Throughout the film, Yazmine maintains a brash demeanor that can only be called “Noo Yawk.”

Srinam gives an outstanding performance. Yazmine is oftentimes her own worst enemy, but there’s a vulnerability that is just below the surface and very endearing on those occasions when she allows you to glimpse it. Yazmine often changes her look which is not something I am sure is common among homeless women, but okay; in all other ways the movie feels like an authentic glimpse of the lives they lead. The rest of the performances are a bit of a mixed bag as Wonder cast a mix of professionals and amateurs.

The cinematography is generally speaking, really good, showing both the filth of the underground and the beauty of snow-covered streets. Wonder does a lot of quick-cutting early on which I suppose is meant to set the pace for the film which is pretty fast – in New York, it has to be – but he calms down on that aspect further into the film.

The narrative structure is a little disjointed and at times you get the sense that some of Wonder’s decisions have more to do with showing his creativity more than serving the pace and story of the movie, but c’est la vie. I don’t have an issue with movies that defy the norms, only that they be true to themselves and I’m not entirely sure that’s the case here.

Still, it’s a decent effort and it does examine the homeless issue with a steady, unwavering gaze. I did like the movie – particularly Srinam – but I can’t say as I loved it.

REASONS TO SEE: Annapurna Srinam gives a memorable performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: Disjointed and occasionally a little too self-reverent.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some sexual situations and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on stories told to the director when he was working with the homeless people of New York.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/3/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Queen Mimi
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Adrift in Soho

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

Depraved (2019)


Give yourself a hand

(2019) Horror (IFC MidnightDavid Call, Joshua Leonard, Alex Breaux, Ana Kayne, Maria Dizzia, Chloe Levine, Owen Campbell, Addison Timlin, Chris O’Connor, Alice Barrett, Andrew Lasky, Jack Fessenden, James Tam, Zilong Zee, Noah Le Gros, John Speredakos, Stormi Maya, Hope Blackstock, Rev Love, Hannah Townsend. Directed by Larry Fessenden

 

The classic novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley was originally the result of a competition between herself, her husband poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and the Romantic poet Lord Byron to write a ghost story. Only the tale of a man reanimated, reconstructed from the body parts of other men has withstood the test of time.

Alex (Campbell) is having an argument with his girlfriend Lucy (Levine) whose only crime was to compliment him on what a good father he’d make. Alex sees it as putting undue pressure on him to become a husband and father, neither of which he’s ready for. He grabs his hipster beret and stalks out into the night – only to run into a murderous mugger. Face to black, Alex.

Only Alex isn’t completely gone. Adam (Breaux) wakes up on an operating table in a Brooklyn loft, not knowing who he is or even what he is. He is literally a tabula rasa, a blank slate. Henry (Call), an Army doctor who served in Iraq and came back home with a massive case of PTSD for his trouble, calms the confused Adam down. Eventually he begins to teach him the basics of motor skills and human speech, which eventually Adam begins to develop as a self-aware human being.

Covered in scars, Adam doesn’t understand why he is different than other people nor does he know that he is a pawn in a game being played by Polidori (Leonard), a would-be pharmaceutical billionaire who is eager to market the drug that aided Henry in the revivication process. As Adam grows more self-aware, some of his memories as Alex begin to resurface, confusing him further. As anyone who has ever seen a Frankenstein movie or read the book will tell you, the path for Adam will lead inexorably towards bloodshed.

Fessenden, who has carved a niche in indie horror with strong, character-driven films, utilizes camera effects to give audiences a sense of the confusion Adam is feeling and how his memories as Alex begin to overlap with his own. There isn’t an awful lot of gore in the film other than some in the initial going as Alex meets his fate, and as with most Frankenstein adaptations, most of the blood flows in the final reel. Horror fans who crave lots of gore might be disappointed with this one, although there is plenty for my own taste.

While some have labeled this an update of the original Shelley novel, I think it’s far more accurate to call this a deconstruction, taking the elements of Shelley’s novel, updating the location and time and then creating something entirely new with it. This is much more of a psychological horror piece than a gothic one.

There is an awful lot of dialogue here – maybe too much. There are some moments in the film that drag a bit too much and the movie would have benefited, in the immortal words of Elvis, with “a little less talk and a little more action.” Still, the movie is much smarter than the average horror film and looks in a meaningful way with out own fear of mortality, much as Shelley’s original novel did but putting it in terms that are more modern and understandable.

This isn’t destined to be a horror classic. For one thing, most people familiar with the story of Frankenstein are going to find the plot somewhat predictable despite the updated setting; Depraved is essentially in that sense an updated remake. It’s in the places where it strays from the source material that the movie has its best moments. Many movie critics will tell you that we are currently experiencing a renaissance of the horror genre; while this movie isn’t on the leading edge of that wave, it certainly is a solid entry into the genre as an early entry into the Halloween sweepstakes for 2019.

REASONS TO SEE: A deconstruction of the Frankenstein mythos, set in Brooklyn.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit tedious in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, sexuality, some violence and horrifying images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fessenden has a cameo in the film as Ratso.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews: Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frankenstein (1931)
FINAL RATING: 6,5.10
NEXT:
Ant-Man and the Wasp

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
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Tottaa Pataaka Item Maal (The Incessant Fear of Rape)

Painless (2017)


There’s a difference between painless and pain-free.

(2017) Thriller (Indican) Joey Klein, Evalena Marie, Kip Gilman, Pascal Yen-Pfister, Tommie Sox, Nick Latrenta, Joshua Koopman, Eileen Paulino, David Weindel, Lino Tanaka, Valeria Sistrunk, Robert Sloch, Orion Spinelli, Katherine van Hengel, Becki Dennis, Anthony Ambrosino, David Michael Carpenter, Angel Connell, Jack Dimich, Ayana Adams. Directed by Jordan Horowitz

 

Nobody likes pain. We’ve created a billion dollar industry that is geared to keeping pain out of our lives. We will go so far as to take powerful and addictive opiates in order to avoid pain. Pain sucks and anyone who has felt intense pain can tell you that in detail

But pain has a purpose as much as we would like to live without it. Pain tells us when there’s something wrong. Pain tells us when we need medical attention. Without pain, we could fall down and never realize that we are bleeding internally. We could scald ourselves with hot coffee and not realize our skin is blistering. We could cut ourselves severely and not realize that gangrene was setting in.

Henry (Klein) has to live reality. Since birth he has not been able to experience pain and brigades of doctors can’t really explain why. He has dedicated himself to research the problem since essentially nobody will do it for him – the condition is rare enough that no medical facility will put the money, time and commitment into solving the problem.

His specialist, Dr. Raymond Parks (Gilman) supports his research but as Henry gets more desperate he begins demanding more things from his doctor. Henry’s condition has kind of insulated him from humanity; he barges into his doctor’s office while he’s seeing other patients. He rebuffs those who want to get to know him better – for example the pretty Shani (Marie) who spills hot coffee on him on the subway and is intrigued by his demeanor – with the muttered declaration “I don’t have time for distractions right now.”

He gets involved with a less-than-ethical researcher, Dr. Andrews (Yen-Pfister) who is willing to provide him with chemicals and stem cells which Dr. Parks won’t provide for him (he could lose his license for doing so) in exchange for samples of DNA for Henry. For Henry, expedience is the name of the game. Although he abhors being poked and prodded by doctors, he agrees to undergo the tests that Dr. Andrews has set up for him if it will get him the things Henry needs to get closer to a cure for his condition. Henry also begins to come out of his shell as Shani becomes more and more of a distraction. However, just as Henry is beginning to live, will he risk his life to cure his condition?

The concept is truly interesting but the execution of the film is what is really surprising. I have to admit I hadn’t heard anything about the film before the publicist brought it to my attention. This is a very well-developed, well-written movie. Horowitz takes a scientific tact to approach the high concept and while I’m not expert enough to say whether the science is sound or not, it certainly seems to be from a layman’s perspective. On top of that, the world that Horowitz creates of Red Bank apartments converted into labs, lowlife drug dealers looking to Henry for product and an encounter between Shani and an ex-boyfriend that leaves Henry humiliated. This is a world most of us are familiar with.

Horowitz also doesn’t take many shortcuts with the plot. He allows it to unfold at its own pace and doesn’t rush the denouement. Yeah, I could have done without the voiceover narration (we critics tend to see more movies using that device than most human beings should be allowed to) or the very cliché developing romance montage midway through the film. Otherwise there are no missteps.

Klein does a solid job as Henry. Henry isn’t always likable – obsession isn’t pretty, remember – and his little eccentricities might get overbearing after awhile but the character is never uninteresting or unbelievable and Klein has a lot to do with that. Horowitz also resisted the impulse to make Shani a manic pixie dream girl clone, making her authentic and their relationship believable. Marie likewise gives the character three dimensions.

This is a surprisingly entertaining and interesting little gem.  It will be available on VOD on October 2nd; in the meantime it is playing at the Music Hall theater in Los Angeles for those in the City of Angels who want to get a gander at this on the big screen. While I was surprised that the movie, clearly filmed in New York didn’t get a run in the Big Apple, the biggest surprise is that I had never heard of this film before. It’s really quite good and you will not waste your time giving it a whirl. Once it’s on VOD, this is definitely a contender for those looking for something different.

REASONS TO GO: The concept is fascinating and is attacked from a scientific perspective. There is some profundity in the script.
REASONS TO STAY: Henry’s quirkiness gets overbearing at times.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, drug references and some brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first full-length feature for Horowitz who also wrote the screenplay.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flatliners
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Bad Reputation

Hearts Beat Loud


Isn’t this how Phish got started?

(2018) Dramedy (Gunpowder & Sky) Nick Offerman, Kiersey Clemons, Toni Collette, Ted Danson, Sasha Lane, Blythe Danner, Quincy Dunn-Baker, Alex Reznik, Andrea Morales, Michael Abbott Jr., Harrison Chad, Robert Reed Murphy, Rafael Poueriet, McManus Woodend, Faith Logan. Directed by Brett Haley

 

Sometimes you just need a movie that’s going to make you feel good. More often than not you’ll reach for a favorite from childhood or even young adulthood, something as familiar and as comforting as an old blanket on a rainy day. Other times though you still want to try something new. If this is one of those times, have I got a movie for you.

Frank (Offerman) is the proprietor of Red Hook Records, the kind of store John Cusack would love. He resolutely and stubbornly sells only vinyl in the hipster-infested neighborhood of Red Hook in Brooklyn. When one such hipster scolds him for smoking in his own store, Frank replies acidly that if he’ll buy something, he’ll put out his coffin nail. The hipster counters by whipping out his phone and ordering his record on Amazon. Such brazen acts of douche-ness should be rewarded with a bazooka to the face.

His smart and pretty daughter Sam (Clemons) is heading to med school all the way across the country at UCLA in the fall. Frank is okay with this although the cost for sending his baby to college is staggering; there’s no way he could afford it on what he’s pulling in from the store so after 17 years he’s shuttering the business, despite the attempts by his sympathetic landlady (Collette) and kinda-sorta-maybe love interest to help him out.

One of Frank’s great joys is having a regular jam session with his daughter. Frank, who in his youth recorded an album, recaptures a little bit of his past glory in these sessions. On this night, a tune his daughter had been working on becomes a really good single. Dad wants to start a band with her and tour; she wants to go to med school. He takes the recording of the song and without her knowledge submits it to Spotify. It is added to a curated New Indie playlist. Suddenly things are starting to happen. You can guess where this is leading.

Haley, who directed last year’s excellent The Hero, surrounds these two with a pretty fair cast, including Danner as Frank’s mom who is showing signs of dementia and shoplifts from time to time, Danson as a pothead bartender and Lane as Sam’s girlfriend. There’s not a poor performance in the bunch and Offerman in particular is marvelous – I think this is his best work to date as a matter of fact. While it might seem to be a bit presumptuous for his daughter to tell Frank – often – that he needs to grow up, it’s also true that Frank seems to be spending his time in Just-Out-of-College Land.

There are a few bumps in the road; the relationship between Sam and Rose feels contrived and a bit too ridden with indie clichés to really hold up.. Also some of the roles (in particularly the mom and Rose) that are woefully underwritten and could have used some fleshing out. The soundtrack is really nice – you have to love a movie that gives a shout-out to Jason Molina and Songs: Ohia – and both Offerman and Clemons, who do their own singing and playing in the movie, are actually pretty good.

Some movies try too hard to be charming but this one pulls it off organically. Certainly you’re being manipulated a little bit but in the end if you walk out of the theater feeling good, that’s worth it’s weight in gold in these troubling times. Incidentally while the movie has opened up in major markets like New York and Los Angeles, it is rolling out nationwide and will be making it’s Orlando debut on June 22nd. You should definitely check it out.

REASONS TO GO: The soundtrack is nifty and the original songs ain’t half-bad. This just might be Nick Offerman’s best work to date.
REASONS TO STAY: The relationship between Sam and Rose is a bit too indie clichéd.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some drug references and brief sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Offerman and Danson previously worked together in the second season of Fargo for F/X.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews: Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Band-Aid
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Worker’s Cup