Best Sellers


Nobody does glee like Michael Caine.

(2021) Dramedy (Screen Media) Aubrey Plaza, Michael Caine, Cary Elwes, Scott Speedman, Ellen Wong, Veronica Ferres, Victoria Sanchez, Elena Dunkelman, Frank Schorpion, Alexandra Petrachuk, Elizabeth Etienne, Charli Birdgenaw, Rachel Osborne, Frank Fiola, Christopher Hayes, Susan Almgren, Michelle Rambharose, Florence Situ. Directed by Lina Roessler

 

Like many industries in this digital age, the book publishing industry has changed radically over the past fifteen years. Like Hollywood, they rely heavily on blockbusters to pay the bills and not so much on literary gems. Besides, people don’t really read books so much anymore; they are more likely to read (if they read at all) on Kindle or some such device.

Lucy Stanbridge (Plaza) has inherited her father’s boutique publishing company which has fallen on hard times. Despite Lucy’s best efforts to modernize the country with young adult fantasy books, sales have been unspectacular and there are buyers sniffing around, smelling the desperation. Lucy needs a bestseller badly, but doesn’t have anyone on her roster that might deliver one anytime soon. And you know what they say – desperate times call for desperate measures.

That desperate measure is Harris Shaw (Caine), once a young lion of literature whose book Atomic Autumn was a massive cultural touchstone in the Seventies, but hasn’t had a word published since. Conveniently, he contractually owes the publishing house a book. So Lucy sets out with her doughty assistant Rachel (Wong) to wheedle a book out of the reclusive author, who is reclusive for a reason – he can’t stand people, and the feeling is pretty much mutual. However, his own financial situation has become precarious – you can only survive on royalties so long – and he reluctantly agrees to supply Lucy with a new book, The Future is X-Rated, with the stipend that not a word in the manuscript is to be edited. That triggers a clause in the contract that requires him to participate in a book tour for his new work.

Being a feisty curmudgeon, he does his level best to be a bad boy. Instead of reading his work, he reads Letters to Penthouse at his readings. He urinates on his own book and instigates chants of “Bull Shite!” which becomes a popular meme. However, as the young publisher discovers to her chagrin, viral videos and online memes do not translate into hardcover book sales – who knew? Turns out, nearly everybody else.

But both Lucy and Harris are wounded souls and while at first they are wary and somewhat annoyed with one another, they discover that they have much more in common than they at first thought. And that they need each other a lot more than they could have imagined.

The crusty, irascible literary icon is a hoary Hollywood cliché that has been done over and over again, but rarely better than how Caine does it here. This is one of the 88-year-old actor’s most compelling recent performances and he reminds us that he’s a two-time Oscar winner for a reason. Plaza makes a terrific foil and also reminds us that she is one of the most consistently high-quality actresses operating in movies over the past ten years. Putting both of them in the same movie was a casting coup.

It’s a shame that the movie shifts gear in the final act and goes the tear-jerking route which feels predictable and unearned. I don’t have an issue exploring the vulnerabilities of the characters – that’s what makes a movie like this interesting – but just the way in which it’s done, specifically the circumstances (I don’t want to give away what they are) is just highly disappointing overall. I wish that writer Anthony Grieco had trusted himself a bit more to come up with something a little less by-the-numbers – or the producers trusting him to do the same.

So what we end up with is a better-than-average movie that manages to overcome a whole mess o’ cliches with overall charm and a surfeit of strong performances, particularly from Caine and Plaza. This isn’t going to be Oscar bait by any means, but it’s a seriously entertaining movie that is likely to kick off the fall movie season with a satisfying bang particularly for older moviegoers and cinephiles alike.

REASONS TO SEE: Plaza and Caine are treasures. There is enough charm here to overcome its faults.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets pretty maudlin near the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and a scene of sex.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Roessler’s feature film directorial debut.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews; Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The End of the Tour
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Nowhere Inn

The Macaluso Sisters (Le sorelle Macaluso)


Facing the future together.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marley


The legend.

(2012) Music Documentary (Blue FoxBob Marley, Ziggy Marley, Cedella Marley, Rita Marley, Chris Blackwell, Jimmy Cliff, Cindy Breakspeare, Danny Sims, Diane Jobson, Lee Perry, Constance Marley, Bunny Wailer, Marcia Griffiths, Judy Mowatt, Bob Andy, Edward Seaga, Lloyd McDonald, Nancy Burke, Ibis Pitts, Hugh Creek Peart, Evelyn Dotty Higgins. Directed by Kevin McDonald

 

This re-release of the 2012 documentary is meant to celebrate the reggae icon, who would have turned 75 this past February 6th had it not been for his untimely death. The movie bills itself as the definitive biography of Bob Marley and there is truth in advertising.

Covering Marley’s life from early childhood to his final days, we see the privations of Marley’s childhood and teen years when he lived in poverty. A child of an interracial marriage (his father, whom he rarely saw and died when Bob was young, was white), he was bullied and often ignored by a culture that at the time had strict racial boundaries. If Marley was bitter about being ostracized by both sides of his parentage, he never showed it and instead preached a message of tolerance and brotherhood. He often went to bed hungry, going days between meals.

Along the way, filmmaker Kevin McDonald (The Last King of Scotland) talked to just about everyone who knew him, either in a professional standpoint (Island records chief Blackwell, backing vocalist Judy Mowatt, musicians Bunny Wailer and Jimmy Cliff, producer Lee “Scratch” Perry) and personally (his wife and several of his eleven children, boyhood friends, cousins, and a couple of his extramarital affairs). We don’t hear much from Marley himself – he granted few interviews while he was alive, preferring to let his music do his talking.

Following his rough childhood, he found acceptance in the Rastafarian faith, for which he would eventually become the symbol. Most Americans tend to focus on the dreadlocks and the use of ganja as a sacrament, believing that the followers were blissed-out stoners; many college students in the 70s and beyond had Marley posters on their dorm room walls – not because of the music but because it was a way of proclaiming a love for weed without overtly saying so. Trust American college students to miss the point (and I missed many and still do).

The music is front and center here and we hear both live and studio versions of most of his most recognizable hits. Yes, he sang about “One Love” and “Every Little Thing is Gonna Be Alright” but he also had calls to action like “Get Up Stand Up,” “Buffalo Soldiers” and “Redemption Song.” In researching this film, I came across a quote by a snooty West Coast film critic who sniffed that Marley “wrote the same song 7,000 times” which is ignorant at best. Yes, I understand that the reggae beat can get old if you listen to it long enough, but anyone who thinks that Marley’s catalogue is variations of the same song isn’t listening closely.

At two and a half hours long, the film requires commitment. I’m sure those who dislike reggae will be put off by that alone. However, even casual fans will find a lot to glean here, as the movie is chock full of rare footage and music that rarely gets played on the radio these days. Marley fans will find there’s  lot to celebrate.

For those buying tickets, be aware that with every ticket purchase, fans will receive a download pack for an exclusive Ziggy Marley – who appears prominently in the documentary – song and a chance to win exclusive Bob Marley merchandise. Click on the Virtual Cinematic Experience link below and a portion of ticket sales will go to various art film houses around the country.

REASONS TO SEE: Extremely informative. Shows a side of Jamaican culture most rarely see.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit overwhelming for the casual fan.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a fair amount of drug use, some adult themes and violent images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bob Marley fathered eleven children with seven different mothers.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinematic Experience, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews; Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Harder They Fall
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Here Awhile


Reflections at the end of life.

(2019) Drama (1091Anna Camp, Steven Strait, Joe Lo Truglio, Chloe Mason, Kristin Taylor, Dana Millican, Reza Leal-Smartt, Grant Hall, Sydney Lovering, Parker Hall, Griffin Gadre, Kieran Gadre, Deborah Lee Smith. Directed by Tim True

 

Eventually, we all die. I will. You will. Your significant other will. Your parents will. Your children will. To dust we all, inevitably, finally, return.

Anna (Camp) has returned to Portland, Oregon, after an absence of 15 years to reconnect with her younger brother Michael (Strait). At first, Michael is not having it; there has been literally no contact between them since their late father threw her out of the house because she is a lesbian. Anna explains that she attempted to call, but their father would always hang up on her. It doesn’t take long before forgiveness supplants hurt feelings. Family is, after all, family.

But Anna has an ulterior motive; she has a very aggressive colon cancer that has spread all over her body. Not only is it inoperable but it is also untreatable as well. Oregon has a death with dignity law for their citizens. Anna has officially moved back and taken up residence, so she qualifies. She is in the end stages now and time is running short. She needs her brother’s support if she is going to end her life with the dignity she wants to.

She finds a new family with her wife Luisa (Taylor), Michael’s girlfriend Shonda (Mason) and Gary (Lo Truglio), Michael’s autistic/agoraphobic/OCD neighbor and co-worker whom Michael looks after. The five of them spread the ashes of Anna’s dad in a quiet, natural place, take a beach trip, have long talks about the nature of existence and what comes after death. As Anna weakens, she sees the doctor who gently tells her how to self-terminate. Will there be no miracle here?

Spoiler alert: no. Anna’s death is depicted as a part of life. The physical act of dying is handled with sensitivity and realism, so kudos to the True (who co-wrote the film) for that. He also shows off Portland pretty well, presenting it as a really nice place to live. Portland is often portrayed as the unwanted stepchild of Seattle, so that was nice to see.

The movie handles a topic – the end of life – that is rarely looked at by the movies, because it is a topic that most of us are uncomfortable with, even though we will all end up facing it someday (and I hope, gentle reader, it is a long, long, LONG time before you do). There is definite food for thought here and using Oregon’s enlightened death with dignity law is a handy springboard.

But the movie is deeply flawed. The characters are largely archetypes rather than feeling like real human beings. Camp looks way too healthy and strong to be dying; some creative make-up would have at least given her a sallow complexion. Worst of all, most of the characters are mouthing platitudes rather than any real insight. I wish the writers would have tried writing real people with real opinions for this film.

For those who are triggered by political correctness, the movie is woke AF. Both couples are bi-racial which is a good thing, but it doesn’t feel organic; it feels like it was a means for the filmmakers to feel proud of how politically correct they are. The relationships seem forced and poor Gary is the only one who doesn’t have a romantic partner. That feels more condescending than you can imagine, and the Asperger’s patient who is wiser than Merlin has become something of a cinematic cliché. I also feel a little skeevy about someone on the spectrum being used as comedy relief. Maybe I’m being too politically correct myself.

But I suppose that’s just the times we live in – everyone is overly sensitive about everything, it seems. I guess I’m no exception in that regard, but that doesn’t change the fact that this film had a golden opportunity to open dialogue about euthanasia, dying with dignity and death itself, but ends up sinking into a morass of clichés and banal plot points and characters. There is some insight to be had here, but you’ll essentially have to be work really hard to find it.

REASONS TO SEE: The subject matter is worth exploring.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overly maudlin and predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are adult in nature, with a side of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is True’s debut feature film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, MUBI, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/11/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Farewell Party
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
This Teacher

My Hindu Friend (Meu Amigo Hindu)


Doing a rain dance.

(2015) Drama (Rock SaltWillem Dafoe, Maria Fernanda Candido, Reynaldo Gianecchini, Bárbara Paz, Selton Mello, Guilherme Weber, Dan Stulbach, Gilda Nomacce, Tuna Dwek, Tania Khalill, Maité Proença, Dalton Vigh, Supla, Ary Fontoura, Rio Adlakha, Barry Baker, Juan Alba, Lilian Blanc, Jason Bermingham, Roney Facchini, Helena Cerello, Ondina Clais, Christine Fernandes. Directed by Hector Babenco

 

Death comes for us all, but it comes in different forms; a sudden, violent end a gentle slippage into eternal sleep, or a protracted, painful illness. Whether ready or not, we all die.

Diego Fairman (Dafoe) is a famous film director but neither his riches or his fame can rescue him from the inevitable; he has cancer, an aggressive and life-threatening sort. He needs a bone marrow transplant if he is to survive, but the operation itself might kill him. His girlfriend/partner Livia (Candido) responds with supportive words “You know that if it were a choice between you dying and me dying, I’d choose me” to which Diego agrees that he wishes it were her dying. He’s lashing out, of course but even so that had to hurt, but still she agrees to marry him.

Following the ceremony, he is whisked to New York for the painful and debilitating process that will either save his life or end it. While in the hospital, he’s visited by a mysterious stranger (Mello) who has come to collect him to take him to the other side. “But I’m not ready to go,” Diego protests. The man shrugs. “That’s what they all say,” he says in a plainly irritated voice. The stranger comes night after night, sitting down to play chess with Diego in a nice little nod to Berman.

While undergoing chemotherapy, Diego meets a young Indian boy (Adlakha) whom he befriends, using his imagination to tell stories to keep the frightened little boy from being too afraid of the terrible suffering he is undergoing. Diego wants to make one more movie and his new friend might just give him the strength to go out and make it.

The movie was actually made in 2015 by Brazilian legend Hector (Kiss of the Spider Woman) Babenco, the first Latin American director to be nominated for a Best Directing Oscar. It is largely based on his own experiences battling the cancer that would eventually kiss him in 2016 (his death would keep the film from American distribution until earlier this year).

This is not just a downbeat film about the indignity of dying – yes, the horrible painful indignities visited upon cancer patients are presented matter-of-factly, as are Diego’s estrangement from his brother who is now charged with keeping Diego alive with a donation of bone marrow – but also a loving tribute to the movies that Babenco loves and kept him going in dark times. At one point, Diego breaks into a song – “Dancing Cheek to Cheek” to be exact – pulling out his breathing apparatus, but his fantasy overlaps into the real world as nurses frantically sedate him before he inadvertently kills himself.

Like most Brazilian films, there is a sensuality that is going to surprise American audiences not used to such things. It manifests in a joyous dance routine that closes out the movie set to the standard “Singing in the Rain.” It also manifests in a scene in which Diego, long too sick for sex, rediscovers his physical sexuality once again in one of the film’s more affecting moments.

The film was originally written in Portuguese but was switched to English to accommodate Dafoe (more on him in a moment). The result is that some of the Brazilian actors are a bit stiff and stilted in their dialogue and it is kind of strange to hear all the supposedly American doctors and nurses speaking with Portuguese accents.

But it might have well been worth it to get Dafoe, one of the best actors of his generation. He is downright skeletal as the ill Diego, his head shaved from the chemo and radiation therapies, looking very much like a man who is inching closer to death. He still, even in his debilitated state, have the ability to roar at the cosmos over the injustice of it all and Dafoe makes it feel organic.

The movie is a bit of a mixed bag and sometimes all the parts don’t mesh as well as I would like, but that’s me. The fantasy sequences work really well, but the “real” sequences of the cancer treatment are also compelling in their own way. The movie does end up on a high note, even though it is tempered with the thought that one of the great directors was making his last film. As swan songs go, this one is a pretty satisfying way to say goodbye.

REASONS TO SEE: Rather imaginative and somewhat surreal. Keeps the interest despite a two-hour running time.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little self-indulgent.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of profanity, some drug use, and plenty of sex and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was based on the experiences of Babenco as he battled cancer and the characters are based on his own family and friends; this would turn out to be his final film as he passed away a year after the movie was released in Brazil.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, FlixFling, Google Play, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seventh Seal
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
A 12-year Night

The Dog Doc


Man’s best friend.

 (2019) Documentary (FilmRiseDr. Marty Goldstein, Meg Goldstein, Dr. Jennifer Lenarz-Salcedo, Dr. Randie Shane, Dr. Jacqueline Ruskin, Leigh Hardesty, Joni Evans, Jennifer Rudolph, Dave Hardesty, Virginia Rudolph, Rodney Habib, Dr. Rick Palmquist, Helen Gemignani, Andre Dias, Dr. Susan Klein. Directed by Cindy Meehl

 

As always, whenever I review a documentary in which dogs play a major part, I give fair warning that I am an utter dog nut and that my objectivity is right out the window. Consider that as you read on.

Dr. Marty Goldstein is a Cornell-educated veterinarian with a practice in affluent Westchester County, New York. He had an epiphany when he grew ill in his twenties and conventional medicine didn’t seem to hold the answers. Lo and behold, a holistic approach helped him feel better and take control of his own health and wellness. He wondered if this wouldn’t work for pets as well.

His integrated approach blends alternative medicine like acupuncture, holistic remedies such as homeopathic nutritional supplements and traditional veterinary procedures. He has over the years accumulated a reputation for being something of a miracle worker, able to extend the life of animals who were days away from euthanasia by conventional vets.

This documentary, from filmmaker Meehl who previously examined the human-animal dynamic in Buck, the 2009 documentary about the man who inspired The Horse Whisperer, was filmed over a 2 ½ year period and follows several dogs with challenging or even life-threatening conditions, from cancer of the jaw, a kidney disorder, blindness and a rabies vaccine reaction. Dr. Goldstein and the three other veterinarians (all female) at the Smith Ridge Veterinary Clinic, are all passionate about their love for the fur babies that make our lives so much better, utilize such techniques as cryosurgery (freezing tumors so that the body has a chance to fight them off naturally), intravenous Vitamin C infusions and blood transfusions. Not all of the pets in the film make it, although most experience a marked quality of life improvement.

These kinds of results come with a price tag and there’s no doubt that the clientele at Smith Ridge is affluent, or at least well-enough off to afford $1200 for a Vitamin C treatment. Anyone who has nursed a dog through a serious illness that has included specialized vet visits will tell you that it isn’t cheap, but any dog lover will also tell you that it’s worth it. Still, in the midst of a pandemic, it’s hard not to consider that this mirrors the health care system for humans as well – if you can afford it, you can get amazing health care. If not, you get what you can afford.

=Dr. Goldstein is a compelling subject and a tireless advocate for his integrated treatment philosophy, which hasn’t really gotten a lot of traction in the veterinary community. The one failing in this documentary is that it never adequately explains the reasoning behind the opposition. We just hear Dr. Goldstein explain that he is characterized as a snake oil salesman or a charlatan, yet we see the results before our very eyes, even the ones that don’t quite work out.

It is hard to watch an animal suffer, and there is some of that here. Dog nuts like myself may have a hard time watching that aspect of it, but there are success stories here, of joyful reunions with owner and pet, and sick dogs once again behaving like healthy ones. There is a parable for human medicine here, but those who don’t want to necessarily embrace that aspect of the film can be satisfied watching four-legged patients get better.

REASONS TO SEE: An interesting look at the life of a veterinarian. Dr. Goldstein is a compelling subject.
REASONS TO AVOID: Never explains why the veterinary community is so intractably against his methods.
FAMILY VALUES: There are sequences of pet suffering that might be rough on those who are sensitive to such things.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dr. Goldstein has since taken on a role in education; the day to day operation of the Smith Ridge Veterinary Clinic is now overseen by Dr. Ruskin.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64% positive reviews.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Paw Project
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Los Lobos

White Lie


There’s nothing worse than a bald-faced liar.

(2019) Drama (Film Forge) Kacey Rohl, Amber Anderson, Martin Donovan, Thomas Olajide, Connor Jessup, Sharon Lewis, Christine Horne, Darrin Baker, Zahra Bentham, Shanice Banton, Spencer Glassman, Hershel Blatt, Carolina Bartczak, Matthew Owen, Dedra McDermott, Julia Knope, Tameka Griffiths, Deborah Tennant, Jamilah Ross, Lanette Ware. Directed by Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas

“O, what a tangled web we weave/when first we practice to deceive” said Scottish author Walter Scott and he had the right of it. As we have seen from the behavior of our President, eventually the truth shall find you out, something that as parents we try to instill in our children. It doesn’t always work.

Katie Arneson (Rohl) is a campus celebrity at her Ontario university. Majoring in dance, she is managing to keep up her studies despite undergoing chemo treatment for an aggressive cancer that she has been fighting for a couple of years. She has received some help from charitable events held in her honor to help defray her expenses but it is a daunting task to face, particularly when your mother is deceased and your father isn’t a part of your life anymore. She is determined to survive, however and the truth is that the only thing that could stop Katie from beating cancer is the fact that she doesn’t have it.

That’s right; she’s made the whole thing up, fooling her professors, donors, classmates and even her girlfriend Jennifer (Anderson) who has been one of her staunchest supporters. However, a foundation supplying a much-needed grant that will ensure that her education is paid for is requiring some medical information which of course she doesn’t have. Her solution is to find a doctor willing to falsify records for her and she finds one in Jabari Jordan (Olajide) but first she needs to meet his price to supply the documents, which means she has to approach her father Doug (Donovan) for the two thousand needed – and let’s just say he is skeptical about her state of health and as it turns out, has good reason to be.

The movie has an almost thriller-like tone and the reason is largely Rohl, who takes a part that is absolutely unsympathetic and manages to turn the audience in her favor. Even as we hate what she’s doing, we still root for her not to get caught. A Hollywood production might have had her discovering the error of her ways and making amends but thank God for independent films because the director team of Lewis and Thomas don’t go that route. Rather, they explore the repercussions of her actions.

The largely discordant score gets intrusive at times, but this is offset by the fine eye of the directors and cinematographer Christopher Lew who utilize bleak, wintry backgrounds, cold grey skies and sterile hospital/doctor’s office environments (often overexposed to further highlight the bleakness of the environment) to give a sense of the world Katie inhabits. She desires the money she’s getting out of it, of course – a girl’s gotta eat, even if they ARE on chemo (sort of) – but moreover she desires the attention, the sympathy, the feeling of being enveloped by caring people, something she never apparently got from her Dad who eventually blows the whistle on her, causing her world to crash down around her.

The ending is actually pretty nifty although it is stretched out a bit too long by the writer-directors, but aside from that quibble the movie is a fine piece of cinematic work. It hasn’t gotten the attention of a distributor despite having played at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, but something tells me that sooner rather than later that is a situation that will be remedied. In the meantime, seek it out at your local film festival.

REASONS TO SEE: A timely subject in the era of “alternative facts.” Morbidly fascinating.
REASONS TO AVOID: The nifty ending is dragged out a bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: The film contains profanity and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Katie Arneson wasn’t based on a specific person but is an amalgam of a number of high-profile cases.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes:100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lie
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Over the Rainbow

First Man (2018)


One small step for a man…

(2018) Biographical Drama (DreamWorks) Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Patrick Fugit, Christopher Abbott, Ciaran Hinds, Olivia Hamilton, Pablo Schreiber, Shea Whigham, Lukas Haas, Ethan Embry, Brian d’Arcy James, Cory Michael Smith, Kris Swanberg, Gavin Warren, Luke Winters, Connor Colton Blodgett, Lucy Brooke Stafford. Directed by Damien Chazelle

 

One of America’s most triumphant moments – right there alongside VJ Day – was the landing on the moon. It was a triumph of ingenuity, courage and will. Most know the name of the first man to walk on the moon – Neil Armstrong. Most don’t know much more than that about him.

Armstrong (Gosling) was in many ways the perfect test pilot; smart, cool under pressure, tightly focused on the mission. He wasn’t the sort for hi-jinx. He suffered the death of his two-year-old daughter to cancer and appears to have shut down emotionally at that point; unable to grieve with his wife Janet (Foy), he throws himself into work and the business of getting Americans on the moon.

Chazelle is a highly visual director and he really knows how to insert the audience into a place and time, and he does so here, exceeding his own excellence in that department. The scenes in aircraft that threaten to rattle themselves apart, or on spacecraft where the force of gravity is crushing to the point of near-death, has that you-are-there feel. However, the use of handheld cameras becomes an issue after the third or fourth instance of vertigo-inducing cinematography.

One of the reasons Armstrong hasn’t had a biopic done on him, despite his status as a national hero, is that he was an intensely private man who rarely granted interviews or discussed his feelings or observations with anyone. In life he was a quiet man, stoic to the point of stoniness and Gosling plays him here as a man unwilling to deal with his own emotions which makes it extremely difficult for audiences to identify with the character, but that was the way Armstrong was.

His wife Janet was a different matter and she was an extraordinarily strong woman who didn’t suffer fools gladly, if at all. She rarely puts up with NASA’s bullshit and certainly takes her husband to task for leaving her holding the bag while he is off turning his attention to other heavenly bodies. For my money, Foy’s performance here was the best of the year and should have gotten an Oscar nomination (she didn’t).

The film is augmented with an amazing score utilizing period-correct instruments like the theremin (an electric instrument that Armstrong apparently was extremely fond of) and period recording techniques, making the movie feel even more like a product of the Sixties. The lunar landing sequence is also magnificent in its visuals, even more so than the test flights and spaceflight sequences.

I think it would have been a difficult proposition to make a movie about Neil Armstrong to begin with. While there’s no doubt he was courageous, a hero to his very core, he was the kind of hero who was uncomfortable with adulation and preferred to keep to himself  We will probably never know much about the inner Neil Armstrong and certainly if you are looking for it here, you won’t find it. I suspect that this film is as close as we ever will come.

REASONS TO SEE: Foy delivers a powerhouse performance that deserved a Best Actress nomination (but didn’t get one). Beautiful score.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too much shaky-cam.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some peril and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film Chazelle has directed in which he didn’t write the script.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews: Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: From the Earth to the Moon
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Children Act

The Leisure Seeker


On the road, American-style.

(2018) Dramedy (Sony ClassicsHelen Mirren, Donald Sutherland, Christian McKay, Janel Moloney, Dana Ivey, Dick Gregory, Leander Suleiman, Ahmed Lucan, Gabriela Cila, David Marshall Silverman, Lucy Catherine Haskill, Joshua Hoover, Kirsty Mitchell, Mylie Stone, Helen Abell, Joshua Mikel, Robert Walker Branchaud, Denita Isler, Chelle Ramos, Danielle Deadwyler. Directed by Paolo Virzi

 

Growing old is hell. I’m finding that out first hand, and I’m not even 60 yet. The older we get, the more we have to lose, including our independence. There’s something about that which is almost unthinkable, but it often happens to our parents long before it happens to us.

John (Sutherland) and Ella Spencer (Mirren) are an aged couple in the twilight of their years. John is a retired literature professor; Ella is a wife and mother but also a very smart and tough cookie. One day, she and John set out in their old Winnebago for one last adventure.

The trouble is though that John is suffering from dementia and his lucid moments are getting further and farther between. Ella is also having some serious health problems and the strain of being John’s caregiver is wearing on her to the point where she isn’t sure she can continue. Their children Will (McKay) and Jane (Moloney) are frantic with worry – their parents left without telling them their plans, which are to drive down from New England to Key West to visit Ernest Hemingway’s house – Hemingway is a hero to John, and one of the things he can remember more clearly more often – one last time.

There is definitely an elegiac feel to the movie, even though there is a sense of humor to it. John’s antics aren’t necessarily played for laughs; he soils himself and some of his memory lapses are downright dangerous. Still, Ella faces a good deal of her husband’s illness with a cheerful sense of humor, even if she is at the end of her rope. The love between the two of them is heartwarming.

Part of the reason it is so is because Sutherland and Mirren are both excellent actors and the chemistry between them is genuine. Virzi gives them a real sense of being on a road trip, which helps the actors express being comfortable together. The Winnebago isn’t in the best of shape but with a bit of tender loving care, it will get them where they’re going, which is pretty much true for life.

The problem here is mainly that the plot is pretty predictable and there aren’t a lot of surprises, although feisty Ella faces down a pair of would-be robbers with a shotgun but that is one of the few moments where I thought that the movie was playing down to the elderly – oh, look, isn’t she cute, she’s got a gun. For the most part, these are real people with real issues that face millions of our elderly day in and day out. That’s one of the main takeaways I had from the movie and I thought both Sutherland and Mirren gave their characters dignity, from the first frame to the last.

Although there are some fairly funny moments and some fairly sweet ones, this isn’t something you should look to for some light entertainment. The issues being portrayed here are very real and they may remind you of someone in your own life going through similar challenges – parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers. It may hit a little too close to home. I’m very fortunate that my mom (my father passed away more than thirty years ago) still has full possession of her faculties, even though her memory isn’t what it once was and she walks a lot slower than she used to, but she is the first to squawk when she feels pandered to. I don’t think this movie would give her reason to squawk.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong performances from Mirren and Sutherland. Kind of a nice travelogue.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit on the predictable side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first English language movie for Virzi.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews: Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:  Folks!
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
First Man

Life Itself (2018)


Ah, to be young, in love and expecting a child!

(2018) Romance (AmazonOlivia Wilde, Oscar Isaac, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Mandy Patinkin, Jean Smart, Olivia Cooke, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Laia Costa, Alex Monner, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabel Durant, Lorenza Izzo, Jake Robinson, Adrián Marrero, Kya Cruse, Charlie Thurston, Gabby Bryan, Jordana Rose, Caitlin Carmichael, Bryant Carroll, Carmela Lloret. Directed by Dan Fogelman

 

Life Itself (not to be confused with the 2014 Roger Ebert bio-documentary) has some mighty tall aspirations. It means to show us through all the pain and suffering through life, we can find solace in that love finds us because it is destined to. I’m sure there are plenty of lonely people who would take exception to that theory.

Will (Isaac) and Abby (Wilde) are a young couple who met in college, fell in love, got married and are expecting a child. Or, at least, they were; we see most of that through flashbacks and we meet Will during a therapy session with a sympathetic psychiatrist (Bening) who is trying to guide Will through the ruins of his life after Abby leaves it. We meet their daughter Dylan (Cooke), a petulant young girl who fronts a punk band but is hiding great pain and not hiding it very well. We also meet Rodrigo (Monner), a young boy traumatized at a young age and brought up by a mother (Costa) who is afflicted with cancer and two fathers – his biological dad (Peris-Mencheta) and the wealthy landowner (Banderas) for whom his father works and who has been part of his life since the beginning. We also meet Elena (Izzo), the narrator who has connections with nearly all of these people in some way.

This is a movie that is riddled with sorrow; plenty of the folks I just introduced you to meet tragic ends, but there is also a lot of joy in the relationships with spouses, parents and caring friends. It feels like Fogelman has tried to cram way too much into the movie which helps to give it the feel that it’s going on too long. Some astute viewers will note that Fogelman has become well-known for the TV show This Is Us which this resembles in tone and construction which is probably why my wife likes this movie so much.

Most critics don’t, however, and I count myself among them. Like life itself, the movie has problems and triumphs in equal measure. There are some nice performances – Costa, Isaac, Wilde and Patinkin stand out, and Jackson in what amounts to a cameo at the very beginning of the movie might have caused problems by making viewers think this was going to be a different kind of movie than it actually was. Frankly, I thought that Fogelman should have stuck with the Sam Jackson movie; it’s a much better one than the one he actually made.

That’s not to say that there isn’t some form of catharsis throughout the movie for you to hold onto. There certainly is, but the tone shifts are so abrupt and violent that we are left feeling curiously off-balance, which is kind of what we watch movies to get away from. Life Itself is too much like life itself in many ways and I don’t think most of us love life itself enough to want to watch a movie about it.

REASONS TO SEE: Jackson is incandescent in his brief appearance.
REASONS TO AVOID: Excessively maudlin.
FAMILY VALUES: There is more than a bit of profanity, some sexual references, some violent images and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fogelman listened extensively to Bob Dylan’s 1997 Time Out of Mind album in order to set the mood of the film which blends love and melancholy. In fact, the track “Love Sick” plays over the opening credits.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/9/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 14% positive reviews: Metacritic: 21/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This Is Us
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The House With the Clock In the Walls