Small Crimes


I was just starting to look up to Nicolaj Coster-Waldau.

(2017) Crime Drama (Netflix) Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Robert Forster, Jacki Weaver, Molly Parker, Gary Cole, Macon Blair, Michael Kinney, Daniela Sandiford, Shawn Lawrence, Pat Healy, Eddie Holland, Jasson Finney, Anatoly Zinoviev, Glen Bowser, Larry Fessenden, Tara Yelland, Derek Barnes, Tyrone Benskin, Frank Schorpion, Alex Stines, Stéphane Julien, Julia Dawi. Directed by E.L. Katz

 

There are those who say they make their own luck and I suppose there is some truth to that. Some people absolutely refuse to let themselves get down; they do whatever it takes to succeed. Conversely there are also people who always seem to be on the losing end of life; they self-sabotage through bad decision making. They truly seem born to lose.

Joe Denton (Coster-Waldau) is one such sort. Recently released from prison after a six year stint, he was once a police officer in a rural Midwestern town who was convicted of conspiracy of trying to murder the district attorney Phil Coakley (Kinney). Corrupt and a raging alcoholic as a law enforcement officer, he has found sobriety in the joint and emerges hoping to turn his life around.

He moves back in with his parents Joe Sr. (Forster) and Irma (Weaver). Ma Denton in particular is suspicious of her son; she doesn’t really believe he’s truly capable of change. Joe is looking to reconnect with his ex-wife and resume being a father again but a single telephone call is sufficient for Joe to back off after a half-hearted attempt.

His ex-partner Lt. Pleasant (Cole) has some worries of his own; not so much about Joe who kept quiet about his involvement even in the face of a prison sentence, but against local crime boss Manny Vassey (Lawrence) who is dying of cancer and has found Jesus; Pleasant is concerned that Vassey might decide to unburden his soul before departing this green earth and in the process incriminate Pleasant.

Joe makes a bee line for the nearest bar and before you know it has fallen off the wagon. He begins to sink into old habits, alarming his mother and a botched attempt to kill Manny brings Joe under the watchful psychotic eye of the mobster’s son Junior (Healy). The lone bright spot in Joe’s life is his budding romance with hospice nurse Charlotte Boyd (Parker) who has baggage of her own, but even this potential game-changer may not be what it appears to be; Charlotte’s only client is Manny Vassey. And so things are beginning to spiral down towards a confrontation as Joe struggles to figure out how to get out of this rapidly deteriorating situation. Knowing Joe, things won’t end well for anybody.

This film had a solid debut at South by Southwest last year followed up with a fairly inconspicuous release on Netflix. The streaming giant has been a big player on the film festival circuit, snagging some prestige properties for their service while showing off some of their own original content. This one, while purchased at SXSW falls more in the mold of filler.

Coster-Waldau is best known as Jamie Lannister on the HBO hit series Game of Thrones and has enormous upside. He plays both hero and villain well which makes sense as Jamie is a little bit of both. He’s had a few high-profile roles but none have really put him over that cinematic hump yet. Here the best moments belong to Forster who is absolutely marvelous. Joe Sr. hopes against hope that his son will turn the corner but the guarded look in his eyes tells us that he doesn’t really expect him to.

I was heartened to find out this was written by Macon Blair, who directed the marvelous Blue Ruin and has written a number of highly regarded gritty indie films. Based on a David Zeltserman novel of the same name, the movie is unrelentingly downbeat. Blair has almost no exposition in the movie whatsoever other than some desultory pillow talk late in the movie; mysterious events are referred to and characters pop in and out of the movie that Joe apparently has some sort of previous relationship with but we are never informed about the nature of those events or the relationships with these people.

Blair is outstanding when it comes to writing male-oriented tough guy material but there is a little too much testosterone flowing for my own personal tastes, a little bit too much macho preening. At the end of the day this is a fairly typical “ex-con struggles to get his life back together despite enormous obstacles and a past that won’t let him go” type of film and although there are a few interesting twists and turns here, eventually when all is said and done Small Crimes adds nothing to the genre. The characters across the board are all unlikable and despite Coster-Waldau’s native charm, he isn’t able to make the character rise above his own flaws and be relatable. By the end of the movie most viewers will pretty much have written off Joe much as his parents have, much as everyone else around him has. Some people, this movie seems to opine, are genetically pre-disposed to fail and that’s such a bleak outlook on people that I find it hard to support a movie that believes that.

REASONS TO GO: Coster-Waldau is always engaging and the rest of the cast does exemplary work. The filmmakers pull no punches.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a little too much testosterone flowing for my own taste. The film is very much a downer.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, violence, drug use and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the novel that the film is based on, Phil Coakley and his daughter are both white; in the film, they’re African-Americans.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Justice League

Past Life


The sleuth sisters.

(2016) Thriller (Goldwyn/Orion) Nelly Tagar, Joy Rieger, Doron Tavory, Evgenia Dodina, Tom Avni, Rafael Stachowiak, Muli Shulman, Katarzyna Gniewkowska, Gilat Ankon, Oma Rotenberg, Lenny Cohen, Avi Kornick, Keren Tzur, Aryeh Cherner, Nitzan Rotschild, Aliza Ben-Moha, Yannai A. Gonczarowski, Tamir Shinshoni. Directed by Avi Nesher

 

For those of a certain generation the question “What did you do in the war Daddy?” was neither a frivolous nor easily answered inquiry. For some, particularly in Axis nations, the answers weren’t particularly savory or honorable. There is no shame in survival, but let’s face it; survival can come at an extraordinarily high cost.

Sephi Milch (Rieger) is a young musician and singer who yearns to be a composer. As part of a tour that the choral group at her Israeli arts academy is undertaking in Europe in 1977, she takes part in a performance in West Germany. In the audience is acclaimed composer Thomas Zielinski (Stachowiak) and his mother Agnieszka (Gniewkowska). The older woman grows more and more agitated, unable to stop staring at the photo of Sephi in the program.

At a reception following the concert while her son is receiving an invitation from the choral master to come to Jerusalem and fill the artist in residency program, the mother accosts Sephi and accuses her of being the daughter of a murderer. Thomas is forced to physically drag his mother out of the room. Sephi is quite naturally disturbed by this but rather than tell her father Baruch (Tavory), a well-respected gynecologist in Israel, she confides in her sister Nana (Tagar) whose relationship with her father is strained to say the least.

Nana works with her husband Jeremy (Avni) on a publication that publishes opinion pieces highly critical of the Israeli government as well as nude photo layouts of Israeli models. She has a temper and often argues loudly with her husband in front of co-workers. When Nana hears about the incident from Sephi, she determines to launch an investigation into her own father’s wartime activities. When Baruch gets wind of it, he decides to read his wartime diary to his daughters – he doesn’t have the diary but claims to remember it word for word.

Now the focus turns to the diary and whether Baruch’s memory is as sharp as he claims. That will bring Sephi back to Berlin and to Poland as she attempts to uncover the events of a horrifying night – and discover if her father is the man she thought she was.

This is reportedly to be the first in a planned trilogy of similarly themed stories from Nesher and it is based on the memoirs of the actual Baruch Milch (although it is a fictionalized version). Now, I will grant you that movies with Holocaust themes are many and there aren’t many more ways to explore it without essentially repeating themselves but this is quite different. For one thing, it implies that for the sake of living through the ordeal some Holocaust survivors did things that were terrible, which they undoubtedly did. It also looks at how these terrible acts can affect the lives of not only those who committed them but their families as well.

Rieger and Tagar are believable as sisters. Often in films the tendency is to give sisters very similar personalities; anyone who knows a pair of sisters knows that’s rarely the case. Often sisters have wildly divergent personalities and that is the case here; Sephi is quiet and a bit mousy while Nana is loud, abrasive and self-confident. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a closeness between them; it just means that the two react differently to the same stimulations and while there are those differences between them, they are more alike than even they realize.

The performances here are sterling throughout which helps keep the movie from settling into cliché; the people in the movie all feel real, whether it’s from the stressed out mother (Dodina) to the angry and stubborn Agnieszka. Thomas is a bit of a romantic foil for Sephi but there isn’t a lot of romance in the movie other than between the two sisters who learn to respect and relate to each other through their shared experience. Tavory also gives a fearless performance as Baruch, making him a most unpleasant man much of the time (you can see why Nana despises him) whose daughters grew up being physically assaulted by their father. Baruch does love his daughters as best as he can but he is extremely damaged by what happened during the war and he’s not inclined to share that with his girls until they finally corner him.

The choral music featured in the film is strikingly beautiful. Nesher also captures the era of the 70s well and while there are some missteps when it comes to pacing – the movie takes a long while to unfold which may cause problems for some younger Americans – he does allow the story to unfold very nicely. Like the espionage movies of the era in which this is set, nobody’s motives are above reproach and the audience is left feeling slightly off-balance in a good way.

The family dynamic is what elevates this movie above other movies that have themes involving the Holocaust. I can get why people are a little weary of movies with that theme but this one is definitely one worth taking note of. It’s difficult for those of us who didn’t live through the Holocaust to really understand what survivors endured and had to live with. This movie will at the very least give you an idea of that and maybe a little understanding at how far the damage went beyond those that didn’t survive the war.

REASONS TO GO: The film is brilliantly directed by Nesher. You’re never sure of anyone’s motives which heightens the suspense. The choral music is gorgeous.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story that Nana tells about urinating on her sister was something that the actress that plays her, Nelly Tagar, actually did. She told the story to director Avi Nesher and he liked it so much he put it in the script.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Debt
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Hero

Mine (2016)


Armie Hammer considers his options.

(2016) War (Well Go USA) Armie Hammer, Annabelle Wallis, Tom Cullen, Clint Dyer, Geoff Bell, Juliet Aubrey, Inés Piñar Mille, Luka Peros, Daniel Sandoval, Agustin Rodriguez, Yesarela Arzumendi, Manuel Medero, David Kirk Taylor (voice), Edoardo Purgatori (voice). Directed by Fabio Guaglione and Fabio Resinaro

 

Our adventures in the Middle East have put the United States in a Gordian knot of a predicament. We cannot withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan without creating chaos and yet if we stay we seem to become more tightly ensnared. We cannot stay put and yet we cannot step away.

Mike (Hammer) is a U.S. Marine sniper on a mission to take out a high-ranking terrorist. Intel has put him in a remote part of the desert far from anywhere, accompanied by his spotter Tommy (Cullen). Mike has the suspect in his sights but it turns out that he is there not to plan mayhem with his fellow terrorists but to see his son married. Mike hesitates and inadvertently gives away their position. The mission is officially FUBAR.

He and Tommy are forced to flee across the unforgiving desert. Sand storms have grounded the helicopters that would normally pick them up so they’re going to have to hoof it to a village six kilometers across the desert. With limited supplies, it will not be an easy journey but given their military training they should be able to make it. That is, until they walk dead into a minefield.

Mike ends up stepping on a mine but is able to stop himself from lifting his foot and detonating it. Tommy isn’t so lucky. He blows himself in half and leaves Mike to fend for himself. Using a little bit of improvising, he is able to contact his handlers and tell them of his predicament; they still can’t get their helicopters off the ground and with their assets deployed elsewhere it will be 52 long hours before someone can get to a lone Marine standing on a land mine.

As Mike is baked in the desert sun and runs out of water, he meets a friendly Berber (Dyer) who urges him to take a chance, step off the mine and free himself but Mike can’t do it. He begins to hallucinate and flashes back to a beautiful girlfriend (Wallis) he can’t quite commit to (but definitely should), an abusive alcoholic father (Bell) who called Mike’s spine into question and a mother (Aubrey) whose recent bout with cancer has left Mike shaken to the core and running away rather than facing what has befallen him at home.

With thirst, wild dogs, vengeful terrorists and sand storms besetting him, it is a test of Mike’s will in order to survive. Can he survive with one foot planted on the mine or will he take a leap of faith and free himself from his situation?

The movie is very much a metaphor for the American involvement in the Middle East, but that’s not really what drew me to this film. It isn’t easy to make a movie about a man locked in place in the middle of nowhere interesting and engaging and I wasn’t sure if the Italian duo known as Fabio and Fabio could pull it off but pull it off they did.

Much of the reason they did is that Hammer delivers a performance that improves and grows as the movie goes on. Initially he’s a ramrod-straight Marine with not just a stick up his butt but a dang Redwood up there, but as he starts to face his past so close to death, he becomes much more relatable. Hammer is extremely likable as an actor but the Lone Ranger debacle effectively derailed his career for big budget franchise films. This is the kind of movie that can put him back in the running for those sorts of roles.

There are some lapses in logic here; for one thing, a Marine sniper team never sets out into the desert all by their lonesome. There is going to be a support crew and a backup plan in case the sniper can’t get a shot at his target – and anyway a drone strike would have been far more effective in that situation. Also, standing with your weight on one foot for more than two days would have physiological effects on his muscles; there should have been some sort of reference to that in the movie. Even a Marine can’t prevent his body from doing what it is meant to do. Finally, a sand storm the size and magnitude of what was depicted in the film is not going to just leave a few cupfuls of sand on someone caught in it; it’s going to just about bury him and likely either suffocate him or at the very least blow him off of the land mine. The winds in one of those things are not that far from hurricane force.

All those unwelcome plot points aside, the movie still worked for me although I can understand why there was some eye-rolling in critical circles. I found that Hammer’s performance made up for the writing deficiencies and while the broken home-abusive father-commitment phobia subplots were a bit clichéd Hammer gave his character enough depth and dignity to put some real bite into those old tropes. I might have wished that Wallis had been given more than a generic “awesome girlfriend” character to work with – I would have liked to see what made Mike fall in love with her in the first place – and I might have wished that the Berber hadn’t been so much the “Magic Negro” trope of the sort that made The Legend of Bagger Vance so annoying. But as far as gripping premises go, I certainly got more than I wished.

REASONS TO GO: An intriguing concept that is pulled off nicely. Hammer gives a performance that gets stronger as the movie goes on.
REASONS TO STAY: Loses points for logical lapses and plot holes.. .
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and profanity as well as some gruesome images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although set in the Middle East, the movie was filmed in the Canary Island substituting for the desert. The sandstorms were added digitally.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 19% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Buried
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Get Out

Collateral Beauty


Just sitting on a park bench chatting with Death; nothing crazy going on here...

Just sitting on a park bench chatting with Death; nothing crazy going on here…

(2016) Drama (New Line) Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Peña, Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, Jacob Lattimore, Naomie Harris, Ann Dowd, Lisa Colón-Zayas, Natalie Gold, Kylie Rogers, Shirley Rumierk, Alyssa Cheatham, Benjamin Snyder, Mary Beth Peil, Andy Taylor, Michael Cumpsty, Jonathan Rivera Morales, Joseph Castillo-Midyett, Ella Monte-Brown. Directed by David Frankel

 

We all deal with grief in different ways. Some of us pour ourselves into our work; others lose all focus. Some of us rage against the universe; others try to find something constructive to do, such as create or work for a charity. Sooner or later however all of us must deal with the loss of a loved one.

Howard (Smith) is doing just that. His beloved daughter has passed away and now, two years later, the successful advertising agency he built is floundering, losing clients left and right because Howard, their main creative force, just doesn’t care anymore. His best friends all work at the company; Whit (Norton), who co-founded the company with him, Claire (Winslet) who has given up marriage and children to give her full focus on the company and Simon (Peña), the numbers man.

There is an offer on the table to buy the company but Howard won’t even consider it. All of the principals stand to lose everything if they can’t salvage the situation and the window of opportunity is rapidly closing. Whit, Claire and Simon, desperate to understand what’s going on with Howard, hire a private detective (Dowd) to figure out what their friend is doing. Nothing much; mainly building domino constructions, biking back and forth from work and writing letters.

The latter is kind of the peculiar part; they’re not letters to people but to things; concepts, really. He’s been writing to Love, Death and Time. The three partners hit upon an idea that, well, never would have occurred to me; to hire three unemployed actors that Whit has found who can play the parts of Love, Death and Time who will personally answer Howard’s letters. They’re not really hoping that this performance will bring Howard back but the detective can film Howard talking to them (yelling at them really) and then digitally remove the three actors so that Howard can be proven incompetent and the sale go through without him.

The actors that Whit recruits – Brigitte (Mirren) who plays Death, Amy (Knightley) who plays Love (now, that I can believe) and Raffi (Lattimore) who plays Time each begin to spend time with one of the partners – Brigitte with Simon, Amy with Whit and Raffi with Claire – and end up helping them with their own problems. In the meantime, Howard has started attending a support group for grieving parents run by the lovely Madeleine (Harris) and looks like he might finally be emerging from his shell. But will it be in time to save everything he’s built, including his friendships?

If the plot summary sounded implausible that’s pretty much because it is. I can’t imagine “friends” doing something that awful to a friend, and the movie portrays them as genuinely concerned for Howard’s well-being. I can’t really reconcile the actions of concocting an elaborate scam to prove their friend incompetent (which has other ramifications beyond the sale of his company) with all the mea culpa chest-beating about what a great guy Howard is and how much they “miss” the old Howard. I mean, friends just don’t do that.

The cast is one of the best you’ll see gathered in a single movie with a couple of Oscar winners and four nominees. None of them will be adding to their nomination total here but the performances are nonetheless solid. Peña caught my attention for a very emotional performance as a family man facing a terrible crisis of his own, and Smith who is the main performance in what is essentially an ensemble cast gets to keep everything in until the last scene in which he unleashes some of his best acting of his career.

That ending however contains a twist so unbelievable that at that point most people are just going to throw their hands up in the air and give up on the movie, and I can’t blame them. However, if you do as I do and just enjoy the ride rather than try to make sense of things, you’ll be far happier.

Now as you can tell the critical response has been harsh. Keep in mind however that most professional critics don’t like being emotionally manipulated and films that do that tend to get harsh scores. In that sense, critics can’t be trusted with films like this. You really have to go and experience it on your own and judge for yourself. You, after all, may not mind being having your emotions manipulated. Maybe you need it. I do, sometimes. Sometimes I need the release of a good cry. Catharsis makes us all emotionally healthier after all.

REASONS TO GO: Strong performances throughout, particularly by Peña and Smith. The premise is at least intriguing.
REASONS TO STAY: Many of the plot twists are telegraphed. The ending is a bit preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of profanity but mostly the themes are pretty adult in nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winslet, Mirren and Smith were all nominated for Oscars in 2007, although only Mirren was victorious.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 12% positive reviews. Metacritic: 24/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Meet Joe Black
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The True Memoirs of an International Assassin

Origin (Bieffekterna)


Some things just shouldn't be meddled with.

Some things just shouldn’t be meddled with.

(2016) Science Fiction (108 Media) Emelia Hansson, Rikard Bjȏrk, Sandra Redlaff, Rafael Pettersson. Directed by Andreas Climent and André Hedetoft

Sometimes you find really good movies unexpectedly. This Swedish film has played a handful of international film festivals and is just now making its VOD debut in North America. While researching the film, I found almost no reviews (except of its trailer) and one interview with the filmmakers.

A trio of biomedical students at a Swedish university works with Professor Robert Bergmann (Pettersson) who is trying to find a way to control human DNA, specifically the aging process of cells. This would help eradicate sickness, stop disabilities and birth defects and extend life dramatically. They are meeting with failure after failure. Julia (Hansson) has some ideas of how to approach this but Bergmann refuses to consider them. He is getting frustrated because their lack of results may end up getting their grant pulled.

To complicate matters further, Erik (Bjȏrk) – who along with being a computer analyst is also Julia’s boyfriend – has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and months or maybe only weeks to live. Julia has figured out a way to attack the problem so without Bergmann’s knowledge she tests it and the students discover to their amazement that Julia’s solution worked. Erik and Julia, along with Rebecca (Redlaff) who has been working with them on Professor Bergmann’s team secretly set up a lab in Julia’s apartment. Meanwhile Erik is at death’s door and Julia is unwilling to wait for the months of testing before human trials can begin. So she injects her lover with the serum and hopes for the best.

The best is just what they get. Erik appears to make a full recovery and more. The serum seems to have heightened his senses and strength, turning him almost superhuman. At first it’s all fun and games but then as Erik’s behavior grows more aggressive and he becomes prone to fits of rage, Julia begins to worry that Erik is being changed in a fundamental way. Rebecca, who has been feeling like the odd person out in the trio, secretly injects herself with the serum.

That’s when the other shoe drops. It becomes apparent that Erik’s body is fighting the new genomes which will end up with his body destroying itself. The race against time begins to find away to beat Erik’s own immune system…but are they meddling with things that human beings shouldn’t?

The publicity of the film uses the term “biohacking” which apparently is a thing. They even thoughtfully provide a definition on the movie’s poster which is “the act of exploiting genetic material without regard to acceptable ethical standards, or for criminal purposes.” I call it the “Frankenstein syndrome’ – a film concerned with the ethics of science. As Ian Malcolm once put it, “you were so preoccupied with whether or not you could that you didn’t stop to think if you should.” That’s the crux of the matter here.

Like Arrival, the movie is more about the concepts than the special effects and quite frankly there really isn’t very much here if any. All the effects as far as I could tell were practical and most of the science fiction was concept. While not quite up to the multi-layered story that was told there, this is still a truly remarkable film that comes right out of left field and tells a solid story without trying to reinvent the wheel.

The acting is pretty much solid although there are tendencies to over-exaggerate hysteria when the script calls for it. You might be surprised because she doesn’t get a ton of screen time but I found Redlaff to be one of the better performers here. She has tons of potential and I wouldn’t be surprised if she becomes a big star in Sweden, or even crosses the pond to become a player in Hollywood. If Alicia Vikander can do it, it certainly can be done again.

There are a lot of pop culture references here, from Game of Thrones to certain other films and while that might end up dating the movie a little bit, they actually make for clever touchstones that Millennials would identify with and refer to. In other words, these university students act like university students, albeit post-grads.

I was thoroughly entertained and both my mind and heart stimulated. That’s a pretty good accomplishment for any film and especially one which has arrived with almost no fanfare or buzz. I’ve provided links to their current VOD streaming locations and I strongly urge you to take a chance on this one, particularly if you like good science fiction. No space battles or weird monsters here but a well-told tale nonetheless that gives insight into the line between human and something else.

REASONS TO SEE: Climent and Hedetoft are master storytellers. Makes use of pop culture references effectively.
REASONS TO MISS: Some of the acting is a bit over-the-top.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some language, violence, sexual situations and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the feature film debut of Climent and Hedetoft who have previously collaborated on short films and commercials for such companies as Alfa Romeo and Cadbury.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flatliners
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Blood on the Mountain

The Late Bloomer


Touchdown!

Touchdown!

(2016) Romantic Comedy (Momentum) Johnny Simmons, Brittany Snow, J.K. Simmons, Maria Bello, Kumail Nanjiani, Blake Cooper, Paul Wesley, Jane Lynch, Lenora Crichlow, Joey Greer, Matt Jones, Beck Bennett, Jason Antoon, Sam Robards, Ileana Douglas, Laraine Newman, Brian Doyle-Murray, Bobby Flay, Page Tierney, Vanessa Ragland, Lauren Shaw. Directed by Kevin Pollak

 

Puberty is an uncomfortable time for all of us. Most of us remember it with a mixture of wistfulness and downright embarrassment. Most of us wish we could have a do-over for that time in our life. Imagine going through it though when you’re thirty.

For Peter Newman (Simmons), that’s exactly what he’s facing. A successful sex therapist who advocates abstinence in his proto-bestselling book From Sex to Success, he’s had few romantic relationships and *gasp* no sex. Let’s just try and put aside for a moment that a virginal sex therapist is about as useful as a basketball coach who’s never even seen a single game of basketball played before.

Speaking of basketball, while playing a pick-up game a particularly vicious shot to the family jewels sends Peter to the E.R. where he discovers something alarming; there’s a tumor on his pituitary gland. Mind you, it’s benign but its presence kept Peter from entering puberty. Once removed, Peter is going to get the whole enchilada.

Yes that includes acne, inappropriate erections, a massive urge to masturbate and a squeaky, cracking voice at the worst possible moments. Worse yet, his crush – his neighbor Michelle (Snow) who has the world’s most inattentive boyfriend (Wesley) and a dream of becoming a celebrity chef – suddenly becomes the subject of his sexual desires, jeopardizing his friendship with her.

For his friends Rich (Nanjiani) and Luke (Bennett) this becomes the source of great amusement. For his parents (Bello, Simmons) this becomes a long-awaited relief. For his boss (Lynch) it becomes horribly inconvenient just when Peter’s renown is bringing his clinic a ton of new patients and new revenue. For Peter it is sheer torture as everything in his life changes in the wink of an eye.

Believe it or not, this is based on actual events. The subject in question is former E! Network reporter Ken Baker whose book Man Made: A Memoir of My Body is what the movie is based on. Incomprehensibly, the committee of six (!) writers who are responsible for this thing chose to change professions and turn an interesting take on sexuality and puberty into a cross between a raunchy sex comedy and a clichéd rom-com.

Pollak, the same guy with successful stand-up/impressionist and acting careers (if you haven’t seen his impressions of James T. Kirk and Columbo, you’re missing something) was motivated to make a movie out of this story but something tells me that the script wasn’t exactly what he had in mind. Still, the veteran Pollak could call on friends to do him a solid which explains the really top-notch cast. Simmons and Bello shine as Peter’s hippie parents and Lynch as always is dry as a bone in her delivery but charismatic as hell onscreen.

There is certainly room for a great movie here; Baker’s story actually has a good deal of humor in it and some real insight into sexual stereotypes, growing up, and the role of sex in modern society. We really get none of that here; mostly the humor is crude and juvenile which wouldn’t be a bad thing if the jokes were a bit funnier – or to be fair, if more of them were as there are I have to admit some genuine laughs here. There just aren’t enough of them to overcome a script that is riddled with cliches and an ending that recalls the worst aspects of sitcom writing.

REASONS TO GO: A really fascinating subject for a movie.
REASONS TO STAY: Juvenile humor and bland writing-by-committee torpedo what could have been a terrific film.
FAMILY VALUES:  You’ll find plenty of sexual content (much of it of the juvenile variety), profanity and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Wesley and Snow previously starred in the short-lived television show American Dreams.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Forty Year Old Virgin
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Wiener-Dog


Music to tame the savage beast.

Music to tame the savage beast.

(2016) Black Comedy (IFC/Amazon) Greta Gerwig, Kieran Culkin, Danny DeVito, Ellen Burstyn, Julie Delpy, Keaton Nigel Cooke, Tracy Letts, Charlie Tahan, Ari Graynor, Zosia Mamet, Michael Shaw, Marcella Lowery, Connor Long, Tyler Maynard, Devin Druid, Sharon Washington, Rigoberto Garcia, Haraldo Alvarez, Dain Victorianio, Andrew Pang, Trey Silver, Molly Gay, Bridget Brown. Directed by Todd Solondz

 

Indie auteur Todd Solondz is one of those directors that either you love or you hate. There is rarely anyone who takes the middle ground with his films, which tend to be somewhat misanthropic. His view of the human condition, particularly as it applies to American suburban life, is pretty bleak. Would that change given in his newest film?

No it wouldn’t. This has been touted as something of a follow-up to his seminal 1995 film Welcome to the Dollhouse but only in the sense that it has a couple of characters in common with that film albeit portrayed with all-new actors. This is a series of four vignettes linked together with the presence of a sad-eyed dachshund who endures four different owners of various degrees of likability.

He is brought from the pound initially by Danny (Letts) and Dina (Delpy), parents of Remi (Cooke), a young boy who survived what appears to be some form of cancer. He’s lonely and depressed and the Wiener-Dog, as he names him, seems just the tonic. However, Danny and Dina have their own things going on; Dina isn’t above manipulating her son, explaining that the reason that they have to have Wiener-Dog spayed is so that she doesn’t get pregnant from being raped by a local dog. Charming.

But Remi frankly isn’t mature enough to handle the dog so she is returned to the local shelter to be put down. However, veterinary assistant Dawn Wiener (Gerwig) rather than putting a healthy dog to death steals Wiener-Dog away and keeps her for herself. In many ways Dawn is as lonely as Remi was, and now that she has a Wiener-Dog of her own, she renames him Doody after Howdy-Doody, not necessarily getting the other connotation of that name.

A chance meeting with an ex-high school classmate named Brandon (Culkin) whom she continues to crush on despite the fact that he was unrelentingly cruel to her in high school leads to a road trip to Ohio, ostensibly to get drugs but also for Brandon to meet up with his brother Tommy (Long) and his wife April (Brown), both of whom are afflicted with Down’s syndrome. They will galvanize Dawn into doing the most selfless thing she’s ever done.

After a hilarious “intermission” starring Wiener-Dog herself, we go to the next vignette. Doody is now owned by Dave Schmerz (DeVito), a screenwriting teacher at a New York-area university (and not one of the better ones) who is juggling teaching students who don’t think they have anything to learn with trying to sell a screenplay that his condescending agent has been dangling in front of him like the proverbial carrot. He doesn’t realize that he’s a laughingstock, his refrain of “What if…now what?” having become something of an iconic mock. This leads him to do something quite drastic.

Finally, we meet Nana (Burstyn), a bitter, crotchety elderly woman who lives with an apathetic housekeeper (Lowery). Nana is visited by her granddaughter Zoe (Mamet) who never visits unless she needs money. Zoe has a new boyfriend, the artist Fantasy (Shaw) who doesn’t have a terribly high opinion of anyone not named Fantasy. Nana and Zoe end up having a bit of a heart-to-heart but as it turns out, something nasty is just around the corner for Nana.

Solondz is, as I mentioned earlier, not really everyone’s cup of tea. Those who enjoy his particularly type of brew will find this film extremely palatable, although some may grouse that his movies all carry similarities that are beginning to get a bit repetitive. He likes to employ the anthology format and has done so on more than one occasion.

When Solondz is at his best, he can be wickedly funny. He blows past boundaries without a second thought and treats sacred cows like they’re so much hamburger meat. However, his point of view about humanity is not very compatible with those raised on Disney thinking that everyone is basically a prince or princess at heart. Mostly, he sees humans as selfish, self-centered, cruel, vain and morally weak. He doesn’t paint flattering pictures of the species and quite frankly he isn’t required to.

He sure does coax out some great performances from his actors though. DeVito turns in a marvelous performance that is easily the best thing he’s done in years or even decades. His sad sack screenwriter is a figure of pity even though he is a bit of jerk at times. Still, DeVito does a lot of work with his eyes getting his emotions across here and it works. You can feel the beat down dog elements of the character and you can also feel the pressure beginning to escape as he reaches the boiling point.

Equally marvelous is Burstyn, who wears this bizarre oversize eye wear that are like a cross between aviator sunglasses and World War I flying ace goggles. She orders people around like a martinet but that doesn’t disguise the terrible vulnerability inside her. She knows her granddaughter is taking advantage of her, and she knows her granddaughter is making terrible life choices, but nonetheless she helps her out. Burstyn imbues the role with gravitas and dignity, solidifying herself as the grand dame of American cinema.

Da Queen was very vocal about her feelings for the film, stating that she dug it right up until the last five minutes and I have to concur. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a huge dog person; I have been known to wear a t-shirt that states “I don’t care who dies in a movie as long as the dog lives.” Animal lovers in general and dog lovers in particular will have a hard time with the ending. I get why Solondz went this particular route and to a certain extent I can admire it, but those who find violence to animals unpalatable had best check out before the movie ends.

There are moments here that are as good as anything I’ve seen from Solondz but the ending was really a deal killer for me. Maybe it’s a bit illogical for me to be fine watching humans being chopped up like celery but not able to watch even a hair on poor Fido’s head harmed but that’s how I’m wired, so take this with a grain of salt. This isn’t filmmaking for everyone, but then again it’s not meant to be. I can admire a movie like this without liking it and the shame of it was that I liked most of it but the parts I didn’t like I loathed. Maybe that’s what Solondz had in mind all along.

REASONS TO GO: There are some really funny moments here. DeVito and Burstyn come through with some tremendous performances.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is extremely disturbing and most definitely not for dog lovers. A little bit too much like all of the director’s other films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some pretty disturbing content (particularly if you’re an animal lover) as well as some animal excretions, as well as quite a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Dawn Wiener from Welcome to the Dollhouse was originally played by Heather Matarazzo who turned down the opportunity to reprise the role. Greta Gerwig was cast instead.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Welcome to the Dollhouse
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Breaking a Monster

The Shallows


Blake Lively hopes this film will buoy her career.

Blake Lively hopes this film will buoy her career.

(2016) Thriller (Columbia) Blake Lively, Oscar Jaenada, Angelo Jose, Lozano Corzo, Jose Manual Trujillo Salas, Brett Cullen, Sedoria Legge, Pablo Calva, Diego Espejel, Janelle Bailey, Ava Dean, Chelsea Moody. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

 

If sharks had their own equivalent of the ACLU, there’d be picketing of Hollywood in general. No other animal has been demonized the way sharks have; perhaps Steven Spielberg would be Public Enemy Number One. Sharks are predators, yes, but they rarely attack humans and it is even more rare that they kill humans. More people die from interactions with horses than with sharks.

Nancy (Lively) has had some shit to deal with lately. Her mom (Bailey) recently passed away from cancer; this caused her to take a good hard look at her life and drop out of medical school, much to the consternation of her dad (Cullen) and her sister Chloe (Legge). Instead, Nancy has decided to take a vacation in Mexico with her party hearty friend but she’s not there for the tequila. No, Nancy wants to surf a beach that has personal meaning to her – it was a secluded beach that her mom used to take her to back in the day. It was a place where Nancy was truly happy.

When her friend is too hung over to go along for the ride, Nancy goes by herself and enlists the aid of a local (Jaenada) to drive her to the beach. It is just as secluded as it ever was; only a pair of surfer dudes (Jose, Corzo) is there. The day wanes and it has been a perfect afternoon. As the boys leave for home, Nancy decides to take one last ride. That proves to be a mistake.

You see, the surfer dudes weren’t the only ones out there; there’s also a great white shark who has been feasting on a whale out in the water. However, apparently having a whale that is ten times its size out there to dine on isn’t enough; the shark must have some human meat because, after all, variety is the spice of life. So the shark takes a bite out of Nancy who manages to make it to a rock 200 yards from shore. And there she will stay, and she will need all her ingenuity and the occasional help of a seagull named Steven (get it?) to fend off the most deadly of all predators.

Let’s get something straight; sharks rarely eat humans and when they do, it’s usually due to confusion. The fact of the matter is, sharks don’t much like the taste of human meat; they prefer more fishy sources of protein and frankly, if there’s a ginormous whale carcass ripe for the taking, they’re not going to bother with going out and killing something else. Sharks are not greedy by nature; they kill only what they can eat to survive. They don’t kill just for the sake of killing as they are depicted not only here but in popular imagination.

Mainly however this particular shark is there to menace Blake Lively and keep her in a bikini for the entire movie and admittedly she looks fantastic in a bikini. Although her character is ostensibly from Texas, Lively is the prototypical California surfer chick, so she is well-cast here. Lively needed to be solid here as she is basically the entire movie; she occasionally talks to her seagull buddy or records into a camera and/or cellphone but otherwise, it’s all her and all physical. This is the kind of demanding movie that pushed actors like Robert Redford and Matt Damon to their limits and this is also the case with Lively but she manages to keep our attention throughout and not just because of her bikini body. She does have a breezy personality that reminds me of Blythe Danner in the 70s and Kate Hudson more recently.

Jaume Collet-Serra is a Spanish director who has a knack for thrillers, particularly the action-based kind. This is more of a character thriller and he acquits himself well, considering that it is much more difficult to keep things interesting with a single character than it is when that character has other people and things to play off of. Lively doesn’t get that luxury; she has to interact with machines and an occasional bird, but has nothing else to work off of.

If you can forgive the egregious lapses in logic and biology here, this is a pretty good thriller. The conundrum of Nancy being so close yet so far from shore is tantalizing. There is a modicum of gore and of the CGI shark (which is much more realistic than Bruce in Jaws) which is a terrifying monster. As summer entertainment goes, you could do much worse – but also you can also do better. As it stands, this is a competently done edge-of-the-seat woman vs. shark film that certainly isn’t a waste of your time or money.

REASONS TO GO: Collet-Serra excels at keeping the tension high.
REASONS TO STAY: The basis of the plot is that the shark has some sort of grudge against Blake Lively.
FAMILY VALUES: Quite a few bloody images, intense peril and some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot under its original title, In the Deep. The title was changed because the movie takes place in shallow waters.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jaws
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Purge: Election Year

The Babushkas of Chernobyl


Girls just wanna have fun.

Girls just wanna have fun.

(2015) Documentary (Chicken and Egg) Valentyna Ivanivna, Vita Polyakova, Maria Shovkota, Hanna Zavoratya, Mary Mycio, Olga Mikolaivna. Directed by Anne Bogart and Holly Morris

Florida Film Festival 2016

There are desirable places to live in the world – California, the Rhone Valley, Hawaii and so on – but there are some places in the world where I think people would choose not to live; the middle of the Gobi Desert, for example. Death Valley would be another. However, I think at the top of that dubious list would be the exclusion zone around Chernobyl.

When Reactor #4 exploded at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine on April 26, 1986 it created an area contaminated by radiation containing roughly 1,000 square miles. Those that lived in the rural villages in the surrounding area along with the plant workers whose homes were in the nearby town of Pripyat were forcibly evacuated, often just with the clothes on their backs.

For some, living away from where they’d lived all their lives was as awful a fate as dying of radiation poisoning. Some of the villagers therefore snuck back into the exclusion zone and resumed their lives. Most of them women and nearly all of them elderly, they continue to live in the zone which although not officially supported by the Ukraine is unofficially tolerated; as one aid worker says, they are far more likely to die of old age before the radiation kills them.

Now at this point I should mention that I’m half-Ukrainian on my mother’s side; one of the most important people in my life as a young boy was my maternal grandmother, whom I called Baba. She is someone I continue to regard fondly even now. These ladies – Hanna, Maria and Valentyna are the three focused on here – remind me very much of her, so do take this review with that in mind.

Bogart and Morris follow these ladies through their daily lives, through visits by government scientists researching the radiation in the soil, the water and in the ladies themselves through visits with one another, to receiving their government pensions – which in typical government fashion are late. I am startled to see how verdant the exclusion zone is; while the forests closest to the plant are barren, life seems to be thriving in the outlying area. The babushkas live on the food they grow and the livestock they raise, supplemented by what they can find in the forest which can include things like nuts, berries and mushrooms. They also occasionally go fishing in the local rivers.

They also get visits from other government officials, including one young woman who reluctantly accepts the offer of food and tries to eat as little as possible; she knows turning the ladies down outright would be insulting to them. They treat her with affection, like a granddaughter.

There are other survivors as well, some who continue to live outside of the exclusion zone, all of whom ruefully miss their old lives in their old village. It is pointed out that statistically, the babushkas living in the exclusion zone are outliving those of a similar age who are living outside of it, which only speaks to the powerful influence of living in comforting surroundings.

The stories that these ladies and the other interviewees are riveting; they have lived hard lives even before the accident. The privations of the Second World War and the German invasion, and even worse under Stalin’s policy of forced starvation are recalled with vivid detail. Many of them had husbands who weren’t exactly prizes; they talk ruefully of alcoholism and even beatings. This was part of life for a young Ukrainian wife back in the day.

We also get to meet a group of videogamers from Kiev who, inspired by the game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. which is set at Chernobyl, illegally trespass into the exclusion zone and try to penetrate as far as possible into the zone, making it all the way to Pripyat. They joke around, but what they are doing is unbelievably dangerous. Kids, don’t try that at home – or anywhere else.

It is the story of the explosion itself and the ensuing aftermath that really makes one pause; it is heartbreaking to hear about the chaos and the tears that occurred as their lives were irrevocably changed. The explosion was loud enough to wake most of them, and while they were far enough away from the plant that they didn’t see the actual disaster itself nor suffer the fatal effects of exposure, their tales are chilling enough.

The movie was filmed around Easter, a very big holiday in the Russian Orthodox Church, and we are allowed to tag along as the ladies are taken by bus to worship at midnight mass. This was one of the most moving moments in the film as you can plainly see that the women are affected by the ceremony which is in itself beautiful in the candlelight.

Clearly, the filmmakers have much affection for the babushkas and there is a wistful air to the whole film. These are old women used to hard work and self-sufficiency. Watching them go about their daily routines makes one realize that we have it easy here. While it is delightful to watch them on their cell phones – reception is as you might imagine rather dicey in the exclusion zone – they represent a way of life that is fast disappearing. That these are amazing ladies goes without question, but they are also in a sense very ordinary. I doubt they see themselves as particularly special; they are just doing what they’ve always done, despite the risks. It’s their very ordinariness that makes them special in my eyes; they are just like my Baba and of course, who doesn’t love their grandmother?

REASONS TO GO: Powerful images and scenes. Compelling subjects. Amazing stories about the explosion and aftermath.
REASONS TO STAY: May not appeal to all filmgoers.
FAMILY VALUES: Some thematic material may be a little intense.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers were required to rotate in and out of the hot zone in order to minimize their exposure to the radiation.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Russian Woodpecker
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Norman Lear: Another Version of You

Message From Hiroshima


It's the devastation you can't see that will move you.

It’s the devastation you can’t see that will move you.

(2015) Documentary (Cinema Libre) George Takei (voice), Kazuo Fukushima, Akinori Ueda, Ryoga Suwa, Hisako Miyake, Kinue Nakamitsu, Chieko Fujiki, Yoshie Oka, Junko Ohta, Kyoko Nakamura, Noboru Hirabayashi, Sumiko Uesugi, Takuji Enami, Akia Nakazawa, Tsuneo Kasai, Nenkai Aoyama, Haruto Oda, Isao Toi, Yoshie Nakatani, Masako Nishida, Sadako Imada. Directed by Masaaki Tanabe

The American attitude towards the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is essentially, “Well, they brought it on themselves, and it saved millions of American lives in the process.” For the most part, Americans believe that these bombings were justified.

Message From Hiroshima may change all that. Director Masaaki Tanabe was seven years old and a resident of the Nakajima district in central Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Fears of American bombings of a more conventional nature had led his parents to send him to stay with his grandmother 32 miles away when the bomb hit. His mother and brother were killed in the blast; his father died two weeks later from the burns he sustained. To say that this is a personal project for him would be an understatement.

The film mostly consists of anecdotal accounts of life in Hiroshima before the bomb, the devastation caused by the bomb and the effects on the community afterwards. The domed Industrial Promotion Hall – once the pride of the city where exhibits on exports from the town were regularly given and where government offices were located – which was reduced to a shell (seen in the photo above) and is the only building in the district (if you can call it a building anymore) that remains as a stark reminder of the devastation. Across the river where Nakajima was located, a peace park full of monuments to the fallen (a burial mound of remains of unknown citizens is also located here) that is both beautiful and sad.

Jocelyn Cervenka created computer graphic re-creations of the Nakajima based on photographs and survivor descriptions that are used to great effect here. They display a vibrant city center, full of shops and restaurants as well as residences. In the background, the river flows, the heart of the city. George Takei from Star Trek who has his own horror stories from the war, narrates wonderfully and describes how the citizens of Hiroshima were once very in tune with the river; bathing, swimming, diving from the various bridges and fishing were regular parts of the lives of the citizens of Hiroshima. One of the casualties of the war is that, according to Takei, that is no longer the case. I would love to see her graphics made available online so that people can take an interactive tour of Nakashima. It would not only be instructive but a lovely way to preserve that lost world forever.

The accounts of the survivors are incredibly moving and to see how raw the wounds continue to be for these now elderly people, youngsters when the bomb was dropped, still are 70 years after the fact. Watching them break down into tears as they describe seeing the devastation, of waiting for parents who never came to claim them, of not even finding bones of their loved ones for them to bury (those close enough to ground zero, which was essentially where Nakajima was, were vaporized by the heat of the blast). Listening to these accounts makes me wonder how Japan was able to move on from this kind of wound.

But this isn’t an anti-United States film. What it is mostly is a means of preserving a way of life that is now a distant memory for elderly citizens of a city that was beautiful in 1945 and continues to be today, but has been indelibly changed by the experience. The movie is only 52 minutes long and I suspect it couldn’t be any longer because as human beings, we couldn’t handle the deep emotions for much more than the time we are given here.

I will admit that I’m one of those Americans who looked on the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as necessary evils. I no longer think that’s the case after viewing this movie. Anyone who thinks that detonating a nuclear device is a solution to anything should be made to watch this movie. Should we have foregone the nuclear option and instead mounted a conventional invasion of Japan that would have cost millions of lives both American and Japanese? Honestly, that’s the kind of dilemma that makes me glad I’m not President; Truman must have grappled with this for years after the fact. I don’t know that what happened to the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are worth the lives that were saved, I honestly don’t. I will say that for me at least, Hiroshima is no longer just a few paragraphs in a history book. The meaning is far more intense and personal to me now. I urge anyone who can see this film. It’s a life changer.

While the movie is making the rounds in one-off exhibitions usually sponsored by churches or peace organizations, it is also available on Amazon and can be viewed free for Amazon Prime subscribers. If you’re interested, you can view it here. I strongly urge that you do.

REASONS TO GO: Emotionally devastating. Short anecdotes of survivor accounts effective. Computer graphics work nicely. May change your mind about the nuclear option.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too disturbing for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Disturbing images, graphic descriptions of carnage and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There is nothing trivial about this.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fog of War
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Best of Enemies