Chained for Life


Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

(2018) Drama (Kino LorberJess Wexler, Adam Pearson, Stephen Plunkett, Charlie Korsmo, Sari Lennick, Joanna Arrow, Cosmo Bjorkenheim, Will Blomker, Lauren Brown, Daniel Patrick Carbone, Jon Dieringer, Rayvin Disla, Daniel Gilchrist, Avi Glickstein, Miranda Gruss, Rebecca Gruss, Colin Healey, William Huntley, Joaquina Kalukango, Lucy Kaminsky. Directed by Aaron Schimberg

 

There is no doubt that filmmaking is a translation of our thoughts and creativity. As such, filmmakers tend to live in a kind of a dream world, one in which they can shape their celluloid world to bring their imagination to life. Once in a while, the lines between real and reel blur somewhat.

Mabel (Wexler) is busy making an indie film to put a little extra jump in her career as an actress. She’s playing a blind patient of a mad doctor (Plunkett) who runs a clinic full of disfigured people, from Siamese twins to bearded ladies to the hideously scarred. The director (Korsmo) – whom it is rumored grew up in a circus and speaks with a pronounced German actor even though he may not be German – in order to enhance the realism is filming in an actual clinic in which the disfigured are cared for and has cast a few in the film, including the romantic lead Rosenthal (Pearson).

Rosenthal has a condition called Neurofibromatosis (which actor Adam Pearson is afflicted with in real life) but has a sweet, gentle soul. He’s not a professional actor and is having trouble remembering his lines and enlists Mabel’s help. Mabel, for her part, has trouble looking straight at her co-star but as they spend time together, her inhibitions begin to dissolve as she sees beyond what Hollywood tends to sell as normal.

Schimberg, making his first American feature, is weaving several stories together; the story of the film crew, the story of the film, the story of a film that the inmates at the clinic are making when the film crew goes back to their hotel at night and perhaps a story that is more meta than at first glance. In that sense, he shows a good deal of ambition and that’s to be applauded.

He also gets to skewer the insular nature of a film set; as the camera wanders through we pick up snippets of conversations and gossip. There’s also some business that have a sense of whimsy to them, like the hospital administrator (Arrow) who is continually looking for someone in charge to get the trucks blocking their driveway moved, or the film crew wondering if Siamese twins are a thing anymore.

He doesn’t pull it off, unfortunately. Towards the end of the film all of the stories begin to blend together until the viewer isn’t quite sure what’s going on. Normally, I’d consider that an artistic triumph but here it feels more like he’s painted himself into a corner and doesn’t really care about leaving tracks on the fresh paint.

Wexler, who has an impressive resume to her credit, shows plenty of screen presence here. She’s undoubtedly a beautiful woman but even beyond that she is able to handle both the shallowness that is part and parcel of the industry but also at the same time manages to give her character a sense of depth beyond the surface. Wexler, who has qualities of both Brie Larson and Drew Barrymore as an actress, manages to fuse both into a complete and compelling character.

There are going to be those who are going to raise questions about exploitation here and in a sense I can understand it. Schimberg utilizes a lot of tight close-ups of Pearson’s face, lingering on the deformities that have almost a prurient aspect to them. He seems to be sending the message Rosenthal is more than his physical attributes but at the same time he seems perfectly okay with dwelling on them. Perhaps that’s a comment on how cinematographers dwell on the features of beautiful actors and actresses in the same way.

This had the making of a compelling film until the final 20 minutes at which time it just seems to lose its way. There’s still plenty of material here to give the average cinephile some food for thought, but not enough to make for a satisfying meal.

REASONS TO SEE: Wexler has oodles of screen presence. The film examines preconceptions of normality and attraction.
REASONS TO AVOID: Lethargic pacing with plenty of cinematic non-sequiturs. Goes off the rails in the final third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity, sexuality and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first onscreen acting credit for Korsmo in 20 years since Can’t Hardly Wait (1998).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Official Secrets

Cold War (2018)


A really bad cold can just knock you out.

(2018) Romantic Comedy (Stadium Media) Madeline Walter, Michael Blaiklock, Gail Rastorfer, Antoine McKay, Kenneth Yoder, Rammel Chan, Deanna Reed-Foster, Antoine Pierre, Scarlett Harper, Shirl Shang, Sara Sevigny. Directed by J. Wilder Konschak and Stirlling McLaughlin

 

Moving in with someone is a big step. Not only is it a transition from just dating to be a couple, it is the last step before getting married. It is also a big step into uncertainty – living with someone is a whole lot different than hangin out with them.

Maggie (Walter) and Jonathan (Blaiklock) are taking that step. Maggie, a nurse, works for Dr. Galoup (McKay), the husband of her patrician best friend Ollie (Rastorfer). It is at work that she contracts the Raccoon Flu, an influenza of epic proportions. Unable to function at work, she is sent home where she promptly infects Jon with it. What’s yours is mine and what’s mine is yours after all.

Confined with one another, their love for each other is immediately put to the acid test. It doesn’t help matters that their philosophies to handling sickness couldn’t be more different; Maggie with her medical background puts her faith in doctor visits and pharmacies. Jon prefers home remedies and herbal concoctions. She wants zero contact with people while he happily plans a themed housewarming party.

In an atmosphere like this with both parties feeling like crap, everything is magnified. Little petty disagreements become declarations of war. Innocent remarks become deadly insults. Suddenly home becomes a battlefield with an interloper your deadliest enemy; the two are inexorably drawn into conflict. Battle lines are drawn in this engagement in which no quarter can be given and no prisoners can be taken.

In many ways it’s hard to believe that this is essentially a local (Chicago) production. This is far funnier and of better quality than a lot of major studio productions. The humor begins as fairly low-key and ratchets up by the end of the movie but oddly enough, the final third of the movie loses its edge and degenerates into downright silliness. Most of the rest of the way though the movie takes affectionate pokes at real relationship issues, like bed etiquette. Anyone who has had the sheets pulled off of their bodies in the middle of the night will relate.

Walter and Blaiklock have some sitcom and webisode experience but they act more like seasoned pros. Both have a ton of screen presence, much more than I expected. Walter in particular has enormous potential as a comic actress; she seems to  be heavily influenced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus (and indeed resembles the former SNL comedienne facially) with the wry overtones of a Tina Fey. I get the sense that as an actress she is virtually fearless; she’s not afraid to appear as a cast iron bitch nor as an object of desire.

This is one of those pleasant surprises that sometimes come along in this job. This isn’t a film that redefines the genre of romantic comedies but at the same time it is solid entertainment that is worth an hour and a half of your time. Comedies are in fact the hardest kind of film to make; humor is not necessarily universal and what is funny to one person is absolutely not to another. I don’t know that every audience will take to this film like I did but for what it’s worth I most certainly did take to it and if I did, it stands to reason that others will too. Maybe you’ll find it as funny and as enjoyable as I did; there’s only one way to find out.

REASONS TO GO: Walter and Blaiklock are far more charismatic than you normally find in a movie with this kind of budget.
REASONS TO STAY: The comedy descends into silliness in the final third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and brief nudity as well as profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script was inspired by a situation that Konschak and his then-girlfriend (and current wife) experienced when they first moved in together.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Steam, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: War of the Roses
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Love Always, Mom

Grandma


Something new and a couple of classics.

Something new and a couple of classics.

(2015) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Judy Greer, Marcia Gay Harden, Sam Elliott, Laverne Cox, Elizabeth Peňa, Nat Wolff, Sarah Burns, John Cho, Colleen Camp, Lauren Tom, Don McManus, Missy Doty, Willem Miller, Meg Crosbie, Skya Chanadet, Frank Collison, Mo Aboul-Zelof, Carlos Miranda, Amir Talai, Marlene Martinez, Kelsey Scott. Directed by Paul Weitz

The thing about families is that there is often baggage. Even the most seemingly loving family has a few skeletons lurking in the most inaccessible of closets. When a family appears to be dysfunctional, it is often with good reason.

Elle Reid (Tomlin) is a once respected poet who has fallen into irrelevance. She has spent the morning breaking up with her much younger lover Olivia (Greer). On the surface, Elle seems to be hard-hearted, even cruel, dismissing Olivia with a “You’re a footnote,” referring to her own partnership of 38 years which ended a year and a half ago when her partner passed away.

It is an inopportune time for a visitor but one arrives; her granddaughter Sage (Garner) who is desperate and scared. You see, she’s pregnant, wants an abortion and her somewhat irresponsible boyfriend (Wolff), who was supposed to come up with half the money but failed. Now Olivia needs $600 and has just nine hours to get it.

So Elle pulls off the dust cover off of her 1955 Dodge Royale (which is actually Tomlin’s car by the way) and heads out to find the money for her granddaughter. You see, Elle is broke for the moment; she does have money coming in from a speaking engagement but it won’t arrive for a couple of weeks and the $40 that she has is not nearly enough so it’s off to see some of Elle’s friends, most of whom turn out to be as broke as she is or as unreliable.

As the money proves to be more elusive than Elle imagined, she is forced to turn to people in her life that she would rather not have to owe, like Carla (Peňa), the bookstore owner who once expressed interest in some of Elle’s first edition feminist literature, like Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. It goes from bad to worse, as she is forced to go hat in hand to her ex-husband (Elliott) whom she unceremoniously dumped when she came out as a lesbian but more terrifying still, the prospect of asking help of the one person she actually is intimidated by – her own daughter Judy (Harden), Sage’s mom who is not only a lawyer but a force of nature.

Elle is an acerbic curmudgeon who isn’t easy to get along with, but as we see the layers peeled away we see that like many of that nature there’s a good deal of vulnerability just below the surface. While I’m not sure if the role of Elle was specifically written for Tomlin it may as well have and she comes through, big time. This is a performance that is going to be remembered and I don’t just mean during awards season; she is almost assuredly going to get an Oscar nomination for this but even more importantly this is going to be one of the performances that defines her career (Nashville is the other and yes, this is at that level).

Although the focus is primarily on Tomlin as Elle, this is by no means a one woman show. Elliott turns in one of the finest performances of his distinguished career as the tough guy veneer he has worn like a comfortable old Stetson falls away and we see his pain in his one extended scene with Tomlin. Harden, one of the most reliable actresses in Hollywood and a former Oscar nominee herself, does some fine work as well.

Garner must have looked at this cast with wide eyes, but the young actress holds her own. In fact, she thrives. It really is nice to see three actresses of differing generations given such meaty parts to work with in the same film and to have all three hit it out of the park is icing on the cake. Anyone who likes to see terrific acting performances will no doubt be drawn to this movie. This is definitely a film aimed at women although it isn’t exclusively a woman’s film. It does present the point of view of a lifelong feminist however, and that’s a POV that is sadly lacking in Hollywood these days, comparatively speaking. It’s also good to see that in a modern movie as well.

Then there’s the abortion. It is treated very matter-of-factly without much fanfare. It is simply a part of what is happening. Certainly those who are strongly pro-life will likely take issue; as the movie gathers steam in the Oscar sweepstakes I wouldn’t be surprised to see some cries of outrage on the right about “Liberal Hollywood” (cue eye rolling here). I found the movie to be somewhat low-key in its treatment of the subject; the fact is that abortions are legal and young Sage is doing nothing illegal here. This isn’t a movie about abortion, but the subject plays an important role here, and not just Sage’s procedure. I’ll be counting the days until this becomes a cause célèbre but until the protesters show up at the theaters I would strongly urge you check this out, particularly for Tomlin’s performance which is one of the best you’ll see this year.

REASONS TO GO: Lily Effin’ Tomlin. Great cast. Short but bittersweet. Realistic relationships and characters.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally quirky for quirk’s sake. Pro-life sorts may find this offensive.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of cussing and a bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the late Elizabeth Peňa’s final film appearance.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Thing About My Folks
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The Transporter Refueled