Blue Jay


What could be more romantic than slow dancing with your high school sweetheart?

What could be more romantic than slow dancing with your high school sweetheart?

(2016) Romance (The Orchard/Netflix) Mark Duplass, Sarah Paulson, Clu Gulager, James Andrews, Harris Benbury, Daniel Brooks, Mary Brooks, Bill Greer, Cindy Greer, Ana Iovine, Leo Munoz, Loretta Munoz, Brady Rice, Karen Rice. Directed by Alexandre Lehmann

 

The romances of our youth are often the ones that burn the brightest in our memories. Who among us hasn’t wondered “what if” in regards to what might have  been if the relationship had survived past adolescence?

Jim Henderson (Duplass) is back in the small California town in the Sierra Nevada range where he grew up. He’s there because his mom recently passed away and he’s getting her home ready to go on the market, emptying it of her things….his things too. His mom was something of a pack rat. There’s a melancholy to Jim that isn’t all grief; his eyes have the disappointed look of a man whose life has gotten away from him.

At the grocery store to pick up some condiments for his meager dinner, he runs into Amanda, his old high school sweetheart. At first they don’t recognize each other – it was 20 years ago, after all – but then the memories begin flooding back. They agree to meet for coffee in the Blue Jay Café where they hung out as teens. Although the coffee is terrible, they begin to bond and agree to spend the rest of the day together.

They end up at Jim’s house – well, his mom’s – and while going through her things they find old photos, audio cassettes of them rapping and of play-acting their 20th anniversary (do teens really do that?) and she finds his journal, reading poems he wrote about his feelings for her ages past. The two dance to songs long forgotten but now freshly remembered. They watch the stars…and the married Amanda, in town to visit her pregnant sister, is now not so sure. She is a mother and a wife and has a satisfactory life…or does she really?

Jim is a drywall installer in Tucson now and unmarried. Never married, in fact. But he is finding that his life is changing; there’s an opportunity for a fresh start. But there was a reason the two broke up in the first place. The secret of that break-up and what has been hanging over the both of them all those years is just below the surface, ready to get out at a moment’s notice.

This little indie took me by surprise. I’m a fan of both Duplass (who wrote the script) and Paulson, so I thought it would be pretty good but considering the simple concept I found this to be one of the best-written scripts so far this year. This is a movie that is built in layers; as layers are added, they simultaneously reveal what’s inside. It’s a breathtaking job of script construction and every bit of it feels note-perfect.

Some might find the black and white cinematography off-putting and in fact early on I thought it was a bit pretentious. It looks like a beautiful little mountain town and surrounding areas that they filmed in; it’s a shame they didn’t use the colors of the mountain to their advantage but I also get the sense that they were going for a kind of retro feel, It is no accident that the longer Jim and Amanda spend together, the more they revert to adolescent behavior, dancing wildly and re-enacting their 20th anniversary dinner from the tape they heard.

I was reminded of Thomas Hardy a little bit here. He famously wrote “You can’t go home again,” but he wasn’t just referring to a place. What I believe he meant was that you cannot return to a life and time already lived, as much as you would like to. It is a melancholy truth, one few of us admit to ourselves. Deep down we always believe that we can recreate the magic of our youth but it really amounts to catching lightning in a bottle. The best we can do is make new magic instead.

The ending is bittersweet but absolutely appropriate and the big reveal is a secret so organic you just feel everything that went before it fall into place like dominoes. Again, a sign of masterful writing. This is a gem of a movie that is likely to bring back memories of your own – assuming you’re not making some new ones with the person you’re seeing this with.

REASONS TO GO: Possibly the best-written film of the year so far. The performances Duplass and Paulson are epic. A wonderfully insightful and bittersweet film without an ounce of contrivance to it.
REASONS TO STAY: The black and white cinematography is a bit pretentious.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of profanity and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The film was shot in just seven days.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/17/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before Sunset
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The White Helmets

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The Band’s Visit (Bikur Ha-Tizmoret )


"My fish was much bigger than your fish."

“My fish was much bigger than your fish.”

(2007) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Sasson Gabai, Ronit Elkabetz, Saleh Bakri, Khalifa Natour, Uri Gavriel, Shlomi Avraham, Imad Jabarin, Ahuva Keren, Francois Khell, Hisham Khoury, Tarak Kopty, Rinat Matatov, Rubi Moskovitz, Hilla Sarjon. Directed by Eran Kolirin

From time to time, plans go awry and we’re forced to improvise. Sometimes those moments of having to wing it reveal a lot about ourselves and have lasting repercussions on the rest of our lives.

The police band of Alexandria, Egypt is invited to Israel to play at the opening of an Arab Cultural Center. The bandleader, Colonel Tawfiq Zacharya (Gabai), is a ramrod-straight by-the-book sort of man, wrestling with the budget difficulties that are threatening the very existence of the band and the growing disposable nature of music in an increasingly apathetic world. He is told in no uncertain terms to represent Egypt properly while in Israel.

Once they arrive, things fall apart. The bus that’s sent to take them from the airport to the cultural center never arrives. Colonel Zacharya, ever the one for self-reliance, sends the womanizing Khaled (Bakri) to inquire about commercial bus service to the town they need to get to, but even this goes awry. The bus dumps them in a small town in the middle of the desert with only a clean and pretty superhighway showing any signs of civilization whatsoever.

Nonetheless, the small line of eight awkward Egyptian men in sky-blue band uniforms complete with gold braid and epaulets trudge to the center of town where the only sign of life shows; a tiny café where two slackers lounge in the sidewalk chairs. They summon the proprietor, a darkly beautiful woman named Dina (Elkabetz). When Zacharya asks in halting English (the universal language of the Middle East, apparently) where the Arab Cultural Center may be found, she says wryly “No Arab Cultural Center. Here there is no Arab culture. Also, no Israeli culture. Here there is no culture at all.”

It turns out they are in the wrong town, one that has a similar name to the one they were meant to go to. Worse yet, bus service has discontinued for the day and there is no hotel. After feeding the tired, hungry band, Dina arranges for the band members to be put up in the homes of the previously mentioned slackers, while taking Colonel Zacharya and Khaled to her own apartment. As the evening wears on, the uncomfortable Egyptians interact with the equally uncomfortable Israelis. In their uncomfortable silences, the realization grows that they are not as unalike as they might have thought.

The two leads are marvelous. Gabai’s craggy, weathered face (with a nose that would make the ghost of Jimmy Durante smile in satisfaction) hints at a soul battered by the world, but his carefully maintained composure, using polite gentility as a wall to protect him from the loneliness and pain surrounding him, speaks volumes. Dina is a woman who has seen life pass her by as she enters middle age. Still beautiful and able to find lovers, she has as yet been unable to find love. Her loneliness is palpable as she reaches out to the Colonel, obviously attracted to him, but unable to breach his walls. Elkabetz portrays that lonely core expressively through her eyes and body language; it really is a breathtaking performance. The fact that there is no way anything could possibly come of this in that place and time makes it all the more bittersweet.

Writer/Director Kolirin whose resume is mostly Israeli television programs proves a deft hand with a feature. His pacing is unhurried, matching the pace of life in the Israeli village, which suited me just fine. However, the pace may be a bit too languid for American audiences, who tend to prefer their comedies rapid-fire. Cinematographer Shai Goldman captures the desolation of the village, with the juxtaposition of the blue-clad band members making the ridiculous reasonable. When the band finally plays at the movie’s conclusion, the music is lovely and exotic.

The relationship between Dina and Colonel Zacharya is a wonderful glimpse into two souls who are basically good, but have been wounded by bad choices, bad luck and tragedies that may or may not have been out of their control. The comedy here is not broad and rapid-fire in the way of a Judd Apatow comedy, but more subtle, yet I still laughed out loud – and quite loudly too – on several occasions. The movie is gentle and endearing in a way that isn’t forced, something that you rarely see in American movies.

This is a gentle film that discusses the universal trait of loneliness, something that goes beyond culture, nation or religion. The pace is slow enough to nearly lull you to sleep, but I found it a means to easily enter into the charm of the movie. I suspect that this will appeal to a very limited audience; it simply doesn’t seem to resonate with general American audiences. Still, there are some fine performances and a look into a pair of cultures we know only in the broadest of terms. I liked it a lot more than the rating I gave it, but I can’t in good conscience recommend it for everybody. It takes patience and a willingness to be transported on a lazy river of charm. Those who like to see movies other than (or more than) the major Hollywood releases will find this rewarding; others who prefer their comedies broad and fast-paced will be bored.

WHY RENT THIS: Gentle charm. Elkabetz and Gabai give lovely performances.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too slow-paced for some.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is some sexual innuendo, and a curse word here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Band’s Visit was originally submitted as Israel’s official submission for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2008 Oscars but the Academy rejected the nomination as the film’s dialogue is more than 50% in English.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a photo gallery to go with most of the usual extras.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $14.6M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Where Do We Go Now?
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Rebound

Café


Jennifer Love Hewitt wonders why “Ghost Whisperer” got canceled.

(2011) Drama (Maya Entertainment) Jennifer Love Hewitt, Jamie Kennedy, Alexa Vega, Madeline Carroll, Daniel Eric Gold, Michaela McManus, Khan Baykal, Gavin Bellour, Derek Cecil, Adam Shapiro, Richard Short, Olivia Hoff, Katie Lowes, Hubbel Palmer, Clayton Prince. Directed by Marc Erlbaum

 

A coffee house, a neighborhood place to sit, hang out, surf the web and just talk over a cup of coffee with a friend. Every neighborhood worth its salt has one, whether it be a Starbucks or a local joint, unique to its environment. Some however are much more unique than others.

This particular café has a pair of baristas – Claire (Hewitt) and Todd (Gold). Todd has a thing for Claire, but she’s in a relationship with a brutal, abusive jerk (Bellour) and he’s what you might call a little bit on the mousy side. Just a little bit.

It also has a cast of regulars – a writer (Short) who has a secret connection to Todd. A drug dealer (Kennedy) who is beginning to get the idea that he needs a career change. A married man (Cecil) who attends the movies with a woman (McManus) whom he is desperately attracted to. A cop (Prince) who is looking for his cousin who is a junkie and also a regular at the café.

All of which is witnessed by a man (Palmer) on a laptop who gets a video message from a young girl named Kelly (Lowes) who claims that the café is a computer generated environment she created. The man is at first skeptical but when the programmer makes some things happen, he realizes it’s the truth. He realizes he is face to face with his world’s God.

This is a bit of an allegory, but it’s far from being preachy although there are certainly some Christian overtones. At least you aren’t hit over the head with it, as some faith-based films are prone to doing. No, this can be taken just as easily as a treatise on the nature of reality. Whether the creator is a computer programmer, an all-powerful entity or a series of random events, our existence is shaped by the knowledge – or ignorance – of that which created us.

I have to admit I didn’t expect much from this film, not hearing much of a buzz about it but I was pleasantly surprised. The movie has a great deal of heart and I found myself feeling very comfortable in the café, like one I was familiar with and hung out at all the time which I suspect was the goal of the filmmakers in the first place.

Hewitt is one of those actresses who sometimes doesn’t get the credit that she deserves because of her face and figure which are both spectacular. She’s also a gifted actress who sometimes doesn’t get parts that suit her but here she plays a little bit out of her comfort zone as a battered girlfriend and she does a stellar job.

In fact the entire cast does a pretty solid job. Some of the storylines work better than others (while I like the two characters from the movie infidelity storyline, was it really necessary to the plot?) as is usually the case in movies like this. However, the focus is Gold and Hewitt to a large degree (which is a bit strange given the whole Avatar-Programmer storyline which is the crux of the plot) and they carry it off nicely.

This is probably going to be a little hard to find but worth the effort. It’s a charming film that asks some pretty big questions, doesn’t lead you towards any set of answers and doesn’t seem to conform to any specific philosophy. I like pictures that have both brains and heart – we humans are possessed of both and films that cater to both of them are both rare and appreciated.

WHY RENT THIS: A nice ensemble piece. Had more heart than I anticipated.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not all the storylines work as well as they might.

FAMILY VALUES: Some violence, some bad language, some drug use and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in a working café in West Philadelphia.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Diner

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Molly

The Vow


 

The Vow

Ghost much?

(2012) Romance (Screen Gems) Channing Tatum, Rachel McAdams, Sam Neill, Jessica Lange, Scott Speedman, Jessica McNamee, Wendy Crewson, Tatiana Maslany, Lucas Bryant, Joey Klein, Joe Cobden, Jeananne Goossen, Dillon Casey, Shannon Barnett. Directed by Michael Sucsy

 

We think we know what path we’re on; we often have our lives mapped out, our expectations firmly in mind. We know where we’re going and how we’re going to get there. Then, life throws us a big-ass curveball.

That’s what happened to Paige (McAdams) and Leo (Tatum), a couple of young Bohemian newlyweds living in Chicago. He owns a recording studio and she is a sculptress. They are blissfully in love – and one winter’s night a truck smashes into their car from behind, propelling her through a windshield (and let that be a lesson to those who don’t wear their seatbelts) and puts her in a medically sustained coma while the swelling of her brain heals.

When she wakes up, she has no memory of the last five years – including the four in which she met and married Leo. In her mind she’s still in Law School at Northwestern and engaged to Jeremy (Speedman). Leo is a complete stranger to her.

What Leo has to tell her is that she left Law School, matriculating at the Chicago School of Art, left Jeremy to go find herself and these decisions had estranged her from her parents, Bill (Neill) – a lawyer himself – and Rita (Lange) as well as her sister Gwen (McNamee) who is to get married herself shortly.

Leo’s task is to hope that her memory returns and to do what he can to jog her memory back but failing that, to get her to fall in love with him a second time. But does Paige really want to – and more importantly, is that really the key to her happiness?

The last question is really the most intriguing one and what lies at the crux of the movie. As Leo tries his darnedest to help Paige find her way back to him, she grows more and more unhappy and frustrated. Leo is eventually forced to face the fact that the woman he loved may well have been killed in the accident, her body filled with a completely new person. It’s a heartrending conundrum.

And the heartbreaking thing is that this is based on something that actually happened – to Kim and Krickitt Carpenter. Although the events of the film were Hollywood-ized somewhat, the basics all happened.  In their case, part of their written marriage vows are what convinced Krickitt to stay with Kim. While Paige sees her vows written on a menu of the Cafe they both frequent, you never get the sense that those vows were a deciding factor. Also, the Carpenters are both devout Christians which never shows up in this film.

All that aside it’s still a decent enough movie. Released in time for Valentine’s Day, it is most definitely Cinema of the Heart. Tatum, not the most expressive of actors, is actually not so bad here; he can definitely do earnest and gets a lot of chance to show off that particular emotion. McAdams is very pretty but hasn’t been challenged much in her film roles; she really isn’t here as her character is mostly befuddled and frustrated. Rarely does Paige really get to express what’s going on inside her head, which the movie might have benefitted from.

Neil who is doing some of the best work of his career in Fox’s “Alcatraz,” has a role that recalls elements of his first major film role as the grown-up anti-Christ in Omen III: The Final Conflict. Bill is ruthless, suspicious of a son-in-law he has no relationship with (as the movie unfolds we discover that Bill and Rita hadn’t met Leo in the flesh until visiting their stricken daughter in the hospital) and very manipulative. He’s a bit of a snake oil salesman and Neil does that kind of thing very well.

Lange is one of the best actresses America has ever produced and she gets a chance to show off her abilities in one very moving monologue that she delivers to McAdams when one of the skeletons in Bill’s closet resurfaces, explaining to both Paige and the audience the real cause behind the estrangement between Paige and her family. It is Oscar-caliber stuff, although the odds of her getting a nomination are virtually nil. I’d happily cast her in any film I was going to make, were I a Hollywood filmmaker.

There is plenty of schmaltz, certainly but the underlying conflict of doing what’s right for the person you love versus doing what’s right for yourself elevates this somewhat above most romantic films. While this isn’t what I’d call a Valentine’s Day classic, it certainly has plenty of heart and more than enough to tug at the heartstrings of women and more sensitive men. Yes, in some ways Leo is too good to be true but I think that when a man loves a woman as strongly as he does, he’ll do anything to make her happy – at his own expense if need be. And that is why love is stronger than anything else in life; because that willingness to sacrifice matters, even in the small things. It speaks highly of humans in a way little else about our existence does.

REASONS TO GO: Inspiring story. Lange magnificent in a supporting role.

REASONS TO STAY: Not as much chemistry between the leads as I would have liked.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and partial nudity. There is also an accident scene which isn’t terribly graphic or startling and a few choice words in places.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The cafe in which Paige works (and Leo and Paige frequently visit) is called Cafe Mnemonic; a mnemonic is a means of helping someone remember something by associating it with a word or phrase; it is a foreshadowing of Paige’s memory issues later in the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/21/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100. The reviews are pretty much poor.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Notebook

ART LOVERS: Paige’s sculptures are actually pretty interesting. They were in reality created by Cameron S. Brooke.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW:The Secret World of Arrietty