House of Hummingbird (Beol-sae)


A conversation on the landing.

(2018) Drama (Well Go USAJi-Hu Park, Sae-byeok Kim, Seung-Yun Lee, In-gi Jeong, Sang-yeon,  Son, Su-Yeon Bak, Sae-yun Park, Yun-seo Jeong, Hye-in Seol. Directed by Bora Kim

 

The most recent Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards was a Korean film, which gives you an idea just how vital and thriving the film scene is there. Korean directors are unafraid to take chances with oddball humor, or unspectacular thematic material handled in a quiet, reverent manner.

Eun-hee (J-H Park) is 14 years old in 1994, and lives in Seoul with her baker father (I-g Jeong) and her distracted, depressed mother (Lee). Eun-hee has not been doing particularly well at school, being forced to go to “cram school” to get her language grades up. With her best friend Ji-Suk (S-y Park), she goes out to juvenile karaoke clubs, experiments with kissing and occasionally shoplifts. In the meantime, the World Cup dominates her father’s attention as does the bakery which is dangling on the precipice of failure. A North Korean dictator dies, leaving the people of Seoul to wonder if war is coming.

Her cram school tutor Young-jii (Kim) is the only adult that gets the desperately lonely Eun-hee. Betrayed by her friends, marginalized by her parents, ridiculed by her schoolmates and beaten by her older brother (Son) who is under tremendous pressure to pass his exams and get into college which would all but assure him of a decent job.

Eun-hee is used to not being taken seriously, but she has aspirations of being a cartoonist and she might not necessarily be as dumb as she’s made out to be. However, the challenges in her life grow exponentially as a mysterious growth behind her ear might be serious, requiring an operation that could leave her face partially paralyzed. On top of that, her relationship with Young-ii is growing more complicated and a family tragedy rocks her world. It’s nothing, however, to the tragedy that is fast approaching.

Although Bora Kim has been making short films for more than a decade, this is her first feature-length film and it has the taste of autobiography to it. The film has had an acclaimed Festival run, winning awards at both Tribeca and the Berlinale. The film deserves the accolades; this is a smart, affecting film that looks critically at Korea’s patriarchal culture and through Eun-hee tries to find a young girl’s place within it.

There is a realism here that is refreshing; the sexual exploration of Eun-hee isn’t particularly sweet but fumbling and awkward. She is a definite scholastic underachiever (to which I could relate) while at the same time having a definite goal in mind. Seoul, which at the time was undergoing a building spree and had become a world economic center is definitely a character in the film; clearly the director feels affection for it especially in the way her cinematographer Kook-hyun Kang shoots the urban scenes through almost a nostalgic haze.

Kim takes her time telling the story and isn’t afraid to meander a little bit, but that is anathema to American audiences who prefer their storytelling taut and efficient. Kim prefers to allow the story to unfold at its own pace although there are times that I did wish she’d get on with it. Americans, right? In any case, this is an impressive feature debut for a talent who seems destined to be one of the very best in a film scene that is crowded with talented young directors.

The film is currently available via virtual cinematic experience which benefits local art house cinemas and is being handled by the good folks at Kino-Lorber. Click on the link below to find the nearest theater benefiting from its run; for Floridians, theaters currently promoting the film include the Movies of Lake Worth and the Movies of Delray in Miami, the Corazon Cafe and Cinema in St. Augustine and the Tampa Theater here in Central Florida.

REASONS TO SEE: Ji-Hu Park is an engaging lead. A slice of life in the Korean working class.
REASONS TO AVOID: Attention-span challenged American audiences may find it long.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some profanity, sexual situations and domestic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A line about wanting to be a cartoonist in the letter from Eun-hee to her teacher Young-jii was taken directly from director Bora Kim’s adolescent diary.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/126/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Seoul Searching
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Cold Pursuit

Jinn (2018)


East meets west.

(2018) Drama (Orion) Simone Missick, Zoe Renee, Hisham Tawfiq, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Dorian Missick, Kelly Jenrette, Ashlei Foushee, Maya Morales, Upasana Beharee, Damien D. Smith, Horace Dodd, John Zderko, Emily Adams, Megan Clancy, Kobie Dozier, Matthew Excel, Gabriel Garzaro, Sara Kamine, Mike C. Manning, Fahad Olayan, Che Ladon, Evelyn Smith, Kat Purgal. Directed by Nijla Mu’min

We use the term “coming of age” blithely when it comes to movies, but in reality, it is no easy thing. It is often excruciatingly painful and difficult to manage even under perfect circumstances. As we all know, circumstances are rarely perfect.

Summer Jennings (Renee) looks to have a near-perfect life. A beautiful African-American girl in her senior year in high school, she is in love with dance and is hoping to get in to Cal Arts. Her mother, Jade (S. Missick) has been divorced from her dad for a while, but she has a great job as a local TV meteorologist. Summer has a dance team – a clique, really – and plenty of friends.

Jade feels like she’s missing something in her life and one day decides to go to a mosque. She is received warmly there, particularly by the Imam (Tawfiq) and after an afternoon of prayers and reading the Koran, decides to convert to Islam. At first, with the school talent show coming up, Summer barely notices but the more Jade gets into it, the more zeal she has. She insists that Summer also convert and Summer does, but Summer is exploring her sexuality, as teenage girls will, and trying to fit her new religion into the life she’s used to. Her attraction to Tahir (Harrison), the son of another single mom at the mosque (Jenrette) further complicates things.

First time writer-director Mu’min based the script on her own experiences growing up in Oakland (the story is transplanted to Los Angeles) and in the richly drawn Summer the experience shows. Renee is quite a find, rarely making a misstep in her performance, showing a lot of maturity in her body language and in her choices. She is definitely a talent to look out for.

There is a feeling of authenticity to the relationships Summer has and the choices that she makes. Summer is not always the ideal daughter – she can be casually cruel to her friends and her burgeoning sexuality causes her to make some poor choices, but Summer is basically a decent young girl trying to find herself amidst all the hormones and most teens will certainly see some common ground with their own experiences, particularly African-American girls but I think regardless of ethnic background, there is some insight to be had here even if you are not a teen any longer.

The movie treats Islam with respect, something that is kind of rare these days. It is portrayed here as a kind and compassionate belief system. Yes, Jade does tend to go overboard with the strict adherence but that tends to be true of any convert to a new religion. We do see Jade having to cope with her station’s reluctance to allow her on the air wearing a head scarf, but the anti-Islam hysteria that has swept the nation over the past 20 years isn’t referred to much, just obliquely.

This is a very good film, although it is bound to make a lot of far right sorts apoplectic. The title refers to a mythical creature that changes its form, and refers to Summer, who is throughout the film trying new looks, new hairstyles (you could make a drinking game out of the various colors she dyes her hair). That is another part of being a teenage girl, finding a look that expresses who they are. This movie ought to help some girls, searching for an identity, to bring their choices into focus.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong movie for teens, particularly African-American girls.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tends to lean towards the soap opera side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity as well as sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dorian Missick, who play’s Jade’s ex-husband David, is married to Simone Missick (who plays Jade) in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Plus, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews, Metacritic: 70/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Waves
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Rewind

Mid90s


Sk8er Boiz.

(2018) Drama (A24) Sunny Suljic, Katherine Waterston, Lucas Hedges, Na-kel Smith, Olan Prenatt, Gio Galicia, Ryder McLaughlin, Alexa Demie, Fig Camila Abner, Liana Perlich, Ama Elsesser, Judah Estrella Borunda, Mecca Allen, Aramis Hudson, Sonny Greenback, Del the Funky Homosapien, Chad Muska, Donovan Piscopio, Kevin White, Harmony Korine, Lauren B. Mosley. Directed by Jonah Hill

 

Growing up is never easy and the movies have made a cottage industry out of illustrating that. This coming-of-age film set in 1995 in Southern California, introduces us to Stevie (Suljic), a 13-year-old boy who lives with his single mom (Waterston) and his abusive older brother Ian (Hedges). Stevie escapes the dreary home life by hanging out with older skaters in a local skate shop. The problem is that Stevie doesn’t have a board and doesn’t know how to skate, but he trades his brother for one and learns on his own – painfully.

Eventually he gets accepted and even respected by the misfits at the store – Ray (Smith), Fuckshit (Prenatt), Fourth Grade (McLaughlin) and Ruben (Galicia), the latter of which introduces him into the world and later resents him for gaining acceptance so quickly. Nicknamed Sunburn by his new friends, Stevie is introduced to the staples of skater culture; drinking, doing drugs, sex, and getting into trouble.

Although the movie isn’t autobiographical, writer-director Hill, bests known as the star of films like Superbad, gives the movie an authenticity of era that is downright amazing. The situations and dialogue ring true; if it isn’t autobiographical, Hill must have had some personal experience at least similar to what was depicted here. Most of the cast (particularly the skaters) are non-professional and they do a credible job. Prenatt has an irresistible smile and an easy charm, but as his character begins to spiral into alcohol and drug abuse, there isn’t a sense of the tragic so much as of the inevitable. Smith also has a big brother-like feel which is perfect for Ray’s relationship with Stevie.

The movie does tend to lose steam in the final reel, and the authenticity that characterized much of the film falls apart into contrivance in the final scenes. This is definitely a guy’s picture, as female characters are few and far between save for Stevie’s mom, who is given little to do, and a scene in which Stevie has his first sexual experience with an older girl (Demie). Still, this is a solid effort and even if you were never part of the skater culture and never wanted to be, there is definitely something here worthwhile. Hopefully we’ll see more of Hill in the director’s chair down the line.

REASONS TO SEE: Gritty and gut-wrenching; captures the era perfectly.
REASONS TO AVOID: Loses steam and becomes a bit more contrived by the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of profanity, drug use, violence and sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hill, making his debut as a director, shot the film entirely on 16mm stock.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Kanopy, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews: Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kids
FINAL RATING; 6.5/10
NEXT:
H4

Kin


Some ordinary boys hide extraordinary secrets.

(2018) Science Fiction (SummitMyles Truitt, Jack Reynor, Dennis Quaid, Zoë Kravitz, James Franco, Carrie Coon, Ian Matthew, Gavin Fox, Stephane Garneau-Morten, Michael B. Jordan, Lily Gao, Lukas Penar, Carleigh Beverly, Milton Barnes, Michael Grisley, Khalid Klein, Sean Fowler, Carson Manning, Dave Lewis, Bree Wasylenko. Directed by Jonathan and Josh Baker

Some movies create their own genres by being something original. Others try to create their own genres by taking aspects of others and forcing it into a mold. This film is one of the latter.

Eli (Truitt) is the adopted son of construction boss Hal Solinski (Quaid) whose biological son Jimmy (Reynor) has just gotten out of jail. Hal is full of hope for the 14-year-old Eli (who is smart but introverted) but disappointed on the older Jimmy. However, it is Eli who discovers an alien weapon when scrounging around for scrap metal in an abandoned factory near his Detroit home.

Jimmy owes crime boss Taylor (Franco) a whole lot of money and in order to protect his dad and kid brother (whom he genuinely cares for) decides to steal the cash to pay Taylor. Things don’t go according to plan and soon Jimmy and Eli end up on the road (with Eli blissfully ignorant of the real reason why) being chased not only by vengeful gangsters but also by mysterious aliens who want their gun back.

This late summer sci-fi action crime road coming of age film actually has some things going for it. For one, the special effects – a combination of the digital and the practical – aren’t half-bad. For another, Franco makes for a truly hissable villain. A late-film cameo by A-list habitue Jordan is also a welcome sight.

But the movie is, oh, so predictable. The plot feels unnecessarily manufactured and none of the characters seem particularly personable. They’re all pretty one dimensional without much depth to them at all. The story feels like something you’ve already seen – and yeah, there haven’[t been a lot of alien weapon movies in the archives, but there have been a few.

There isn’t a lot here to recommend it but then again, there isn’t a lot here either to discourage you from seeing it. This is the kind of movie you watch and forget about ten minutes later. If that sounds like something you need, have at it. Otherwise, there are plenty of much better sci-fi action films out there to occupy your time.

REASONS TO SEE: Decent special effects.
REASONS TO AVOID: Predictable plot and generic characters.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence of both the gangster and sci-fi variety, some sexually suggestive material, profanity and adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Solinski home in the film was the same one used for the 2005 John Singleton film Four Brothers.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews: Metacritic: 35/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A.X.L.
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Crazy Rich Asians

Low Tide (2019)


Summer is a time for Springsteen.

(2019) Drama (A24Jaeden Martell, Keean Johnson, Shea Whigham, Alex Neustaedter, Daniel Zoghadri, Kristine Froseth, Mike Hodge, Michael David Baldwin, Danny Bolero, Teddy Coluca, Albert Dubinski, Khail Bryant, James Paxton, Arial Eliaz, Camila Perez, Jean Tucker, Dave Lach, Elisa de la Roche, Sunny Edelman, Devon Moyd, April Mauger. Directed by Kevin McMullin

 

When it coms to our formative years, we have a tendency to either overly romanticize or overly criticize. When it comes to making movies about that time in our lives, the balance leans heavily towards the former.

The Jersey shore as the 80s are becoming the 90s isn’t necessarily an idyllic life. While the town is a bit of a postcard, the lives being lived without it are not. Brothers Alan (Johnson) and Peter (Martell) are largely on their own over the summer; their mother passed away years earlier and their father is literally out to sea; he’s a long-liner whose fishing trip lasts essentially the entire summer. The two boys are on their own.

As boys on their own will do, they fall in with the wrong crowd. Red (Neustaedter) is a sociopath, prone to violent outposts and ruling his little group with fear and intimidation. Smitty (Zoghadri) is a slippery character, the kind of guy who’d sell out his own mother if there was a percentage in it for him. Alan, Red and Smitty have taken to robbing the summer homes of “Bennies,” their derogatory name for upscale tourists vacationing in their quaint hamlet. Why do they do it? Boredom, likely; it also provides a cheap source of alcohol and drugs which they also take along with whatever trinkets they can fence.

On one job, their usual lookout Smitty breaks his leg in a clumsy fall and puts the burglary shenanigans on the back-burner for a while. Alan meets Mary (Froseth), a pretty summer Bennie whom he wants desperately to impress. Peter, who earns a little extra income by selling fish at the dock, is a Boy Scout with a future ahead of him. Then, Red convinces his crew to pull one last robbery with Peter substituting for Smitty. At this house, Peter and Alan find something they didn’t expect; a bag of vintage Doubloons that are worth a fortune. Deciding to keep it from the volatile Red who would likely take the bulk of the coins for himself, especially after Red deserts Peter and Alan leading to Alan getting caught by the local sheriff (Whigham) although he keeps that a secret from Red, knowing Red would go ballistic if he thought for even a second that Alan had spoken to the cops.

Peter buries the coins but not before Alan pawns enough of them to buy himself a car, the better to impress Mary with. Peter is aghast, knowing that this will draw attention to them – and of course, it does. Now the crew is eating its own young and nobody trusts anybody – and Red is a ticking time bomb who might just resort to murder if he suspects any of his friends might betray him.

It seems to me that movies with this kind of setting almost lens themselves; the cinematography is definitely a highlight here. It is counterbalanced (and not in a good way) by the score which is just annoying and weak. McMullin does a pretty decent job of establishing time and place with the strategic use of Bon Jovi on the soundtrack.

Fortunately, the cast is much better than one would expect. There is a great deal of chemistry between the leads and there is a naturalism to their performances that is quite charming. Martell and Johnson in particular come off as brothers from other mothers and Martell may be the best new find of 2019. He has the simmering charisma of a young John Cusack and the presence of a Brad Pitt. He’s got star quality written all over him – hopefully in permanent ink.

I was also impressed by Neustaedter’s performance. Red is an ideal movie villain, the kind whose fuse is short that you literally sit on eggshells whenever he’s onscreen; you never know how he’s going to react and how violent that reaction will be. He’s the kind of kid who knows he’s a bad seed and doesn’t much care. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth (the son of a big local developer) and a chip on his shoulder. Whatever rage drives him, it’s bound to lead him to trouble even his well-heeled dad won’t be able to buy him out of someday and indeed it does.

The ending isn’t the most innovative you’ll ever see and in fact McMullin (who also wrote the script) telegraphs the ending a bit too much. There are vibes here from movies like The Goonies and TV shows like Stranger Things although without the fantastic elements. However, this isn’t strictly an idealized version of the good old days; some pretty bleak things happened and the people that surrounded Peter and Alan weren’t the kind that are likely to be a part of their lives well into adulthood. There’s certainly some things worth checking out here but it’s a bit too uneven to give it an unbridled recommendation.

The movie has been playing on DirecTV since Labor Day and is just now getting a limited theatrical release. It’s also available on a number of VOD outlets if you’re more into home viewing than checking it out on the big screen.

REASONS TO SEE: A good late summer film that manages to establish a decent level of suspense.
REASONS TO AVOID: A weak score and a predictable ending disintegrates some of the good will it builds up.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some teen drug use and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature debut of director McMullin.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Plus, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/4/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews: Metacritic: 62/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bling Ring
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Memory: The Origins of Alien

Minding the Gap


Skating can be more than just a passion.

(2018) Documentary (Hulu/Magnolia) Zach Milligan, Keire Johnson, Nina Bowgren, Kent Abernathy, Bing Liu, Mingyue Bolen, Roberta Johnson, Rory Mulligan, Kyle, Eric, Vickie. Directed by Bing Liu

 

Sometimes a film presents itself in such a way that you expect one thing (and those expectations are might low) but are delivered another which is so much more than you thought it might be. Those are the moments of discovery when you realize that you have seen a movie that isn’t just entertaining or enlightening but life-changing.

The movie begins as a suburban skateboarding documentary and to be honest, I’ve seen enough of those. The main protagonists are shredding around Rockford, Illinois and during interviews talk about how they just want to skate, they’re not interested in being a traditional part of society and that they don’t want to be put into any sort of box. These are all things about skate culture that I found repelling, a kind of entitlement that is unearned. As it turned out I was wrong.

We see the last three years of the lives of these skaters, essentially, as Zach – the leader of this group of friends, wrestles with fatherhood as his girlfriend Nina gives birth. Keire, the lone African-American member of the group, feels a sense of belonging with his friends that he doesn’t have with his family and Asian-American Liu – who initially was planning to only be behind the camera – begins to realize that documenting his friends’ lives is opening up some of the rougher parts of his own.

All three of these boys (and Nina as well) are on the cusp of adulthood and they are being dragged into it kicking and screaming. They don’t always act responsibly and they don’t always say or do the right thing. In other words, they are just like all of us at that age. Some of the things they do are destructive, some of the things they do are sweet but in every instance there is a sense of being unsure that they are doing the right thing. Like all of us as we move from childhood to adulthood, they are flailing around in the dark and hoping that they’ll find something to hold onto.

The relationship between Zach and Nina begins to deteriorate. They fight all the time, leading to a screaming match in which Nina threatens to kill Zach. We sympathize with Zach as he seems to be doing his best – working long hours as a roofer – but then we hear Nina’s side of things. Zach, as it turns out, is not the guy we thought he was.

All three of the boys have issues with fatherhood – in the cases of Keire and Bing dealing with abusive fathers. As Keire wryly says early on, “Back then it was called discipline but what it’s called now is child abuse.” Their moms are interviewed as we see the toll that abusive fathers took on them as well and as the movie goes on, how the dysfunctional relationship between Zach and Nina takes a toll on her as well. Everyone in this movie undergoes big changes in maturity as the movie goes on; some for the better, others not so much.

There are a lot of scenes of the guys skateboarding, maybe a few too many but one thing you begin to realize is that skateboarding is not a hobby or even a passion; it’s a release for them. It’s a way for them to deal with their pain and it’s as necessary to their well-being as eating and breathing. The issues I had with skater culture suddenly evaporated as I watched this. Their need for non-conformity made sense now to me. I can’t always condone someone who believes that their way of living is superior to anyone else’s, but I can see why the lifestyle is chosen. In a lot of ways, surfer culture is similar.

This is a movie you should see. You might think “oh, another skateboarding film” but it’s not that. It’s a coming of age film, not in the traditional Hollywood state of mind but as it really happens to all of us. Nobody looks forward to responsibility and stress but nevertheless we want the opportunity to make our own decisions and live life on our own terms. That’s not always possible; circumstances often dictate what our actions must be, but that need for autonomy and to be ourselves remains with us even when you’re as old as I am.

REASONS TO GO: The film goes from being a skate kid doc to an unexpected treasure. I ended up getting a better understanding of skate culture. It’s very powerful in places.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a bit on the raw side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, some brief drug use and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Liu has been filming his friends since they were all teenagers (and in Keire Johnson’s case, 11 years old) and has incorporated some of that home footage into the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 91/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Street Kids
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Mute

Lady Bird


There’s always a little love/hate in every mother-daughter relationship.

(2017) Dramedy (A24) Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Beanie Feldstein, Timothée Chalamet, Lucas Hedges, Odeya Rush, Kathryn Newton, Tracy Letts, Lois Smith, Laura Marano, Andy Buckley, Danielle Macdonald, Jordan Rodrigues, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Kristen Cloke, Daniel Zovatto, John Karna, Bayne Gibby, Bob Stephenson, Marielle Scott, Chris Witaske, Suzanne LaChasse.  Directed by Greta Gerwig

 

Adolescence is a difficult period. We all undergo it; we don’t all survive it. We muddle through as best we can as we learn to find out who we are and hopefully, who we want to become. It’s a wonder that any of us live to be 21.

Christine McPherson (Ronan) insists that people call her “Lady Bird.” That isn’t her name; she just likes the sound of it. A high school senior at an all-girls Catholic school in suburban Sacramento, California, she is chafing at the bit to get free of the Great Central Valley and move somewhere sophisticated and cultured i.e. New York. Her mother Marion (Metcalf) would prefer that Lady Bird stay somewhere local, mainly because that’s about all the family can afford. At least Marion can take comfort in that her daughter, who is surprisingly smart, doesn’t really have the grades to get into any schools she really wants to go to.

Lady Bird has a fairly small circle; in addition to her mother with whom she has a contentious relationship, there’s her brother Miguel (Rodrigues) who graduated college but has only been able to find a job bagging groceries and her father Larry (Letts) who is as loving and kind as her mother is critical and demanding. Lady Bird’s bestie Julie Steffans (Feldstein) is, like herself, from the wrong side of the tracks. Julie is, like Lady Bird, on the outside looking in on the popularity scale.

Like most girls her age, Lady Bird is very interested in boys but they mystify her. She doesn’t really know how to act around them or to let them know she likes them. She’s also interested in sex but she wants it on her terms. I think it’s pretty much safe to say that Lady Bird wants to live life in all its aspects on her own terms which at 17 isn’t necessarily an unusual thing. She will explore different aspects of high school life, experience all sorts of different things both good and bad and continue to work towards her goal of going to college in New York, as hopeless a goal as it may seem.

The term “coming of age film” can cover a whole lot of sins but in this case, it is truly apt. We actually see real growth (as opposed to Hollywood growth which is generally unearned) in Lady Bird. Greta Gerwig, riding the director’s chair solo for the first time in her career, does a bang-up job. Although only semi-autobiographical (Gerwig has gone on record that this is more emotionally autobiographical than factually so) there is an air of authenticity to it. If Lady Bird isn’t Gerwig she’s certainly a cousin and that’s not a bad thing.

Ronan and Metcalf both turn in performances that have legitimate shots at Oscar nominations. When mother and daughter are going at it the screen just about crackles with electricity. Marion loves her daughter passionately but doesn’t always express that love in healthy ways. She’s outspoken (like her daughter) and hyper-critical which is definitely not appreciated. Larry does his best to mitigate things but he’s a little intimidated by Marion as well and when he loses his job he clearly begins to doubt himself although that’s an aspect of the story that isn’t explored thoroughly. Then again, it’s not Larry’s story – it’s Lady Bird’s.

In a sense this is also a love letter to Sacramento (where Gerwig grew up and where this is set). Although Lady Bird complains about the provincialness of the city, it’s clear that Gerwig has a great deal of affection for the place. Residents and regular visitors will recognize a lot of different landmarks and local hangouts shown at various times in the film. One can’t complain about a movie with this much love for the capitol of California.

There is a pretty frank portrayal of Lady Bird’s sexuality; she becomes attracted to two different guys during the course of the film and contemplates losing her virginity. The frank discussion of the event is going to feel familiar to most women, although those who find such things distasteful are going to have a difficult time with that particular scene. I suppose it is going to depend on how comfortable you are with sexual discussions.

Gerwig doesn’t get everything right. The ending feels a bit rushed and a little bit of a nonsequitir. Her move from one BFF to another one who is more shallow just so Lady Bird can get closer to a guy she’s interested in comes off as a little bit cliché and maybe a little bit out of character. However, those are relatively minor things and she does for the most part nail the film.

I commented on Facebook that everyone who has ever been an adolescent girl should see this and I stand by that. It is going to resonate deeply with most women who will recognize the situations and the character dynamics. Men are also going to enjoy this because they will also get a chance to laugh at some of the foibles of adolescent girls – and maybe get to understand the women in their lives just a teensy bit better. Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

REASONS TO GO: The writing is smart and the characters realistic. You have to love a film that gives Sacto this much love.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending feels a little bit rushed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a lot of teen sexuality, some brief nudity and lots of teen partying.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lady Bird recently set a Rotten Tomatoes record for the most positive reviews without a single negative review – 164 consecutive positives and counting.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 94/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Girl Flu
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Gangster Land

The Only Living Boy in New York


Reflections in my mind.

(2017) Drama (Roadside Attractions/Amazon) Callum Turner, Jeff Bridges, Kate Beckinsale, Pierce Brosnan, Cynthia Nixon, Kiersey Clemons, Tate Donovan, Wallace Shawn, Anh Duong, Debi Mazar, Ben Hollandsworth, John Bolger, Bill Camp, Richard Bekins, Ryan Speakman, Oliver Thornton, Alexander Sokovikov, Ed Jewett, Amy Hohn. Directed by Marc Webb

 

It is not uncommon for young people to finish college or drop out of college and end up feeling adrift. Okay, I’m done with school; now what? It’s an exciting and frightening concept at the same time.

Thomas Webb (Turner) – and to be sure, it’s Thomas and not Tommy or Tom – is in just such a pickle. He is the son of successful publisher Ethan (Brosnan) and artist Judith (Nixon) and has not quite moved back in with them but has taken an apartment on the Lower East Side, not far from his parents on the Upper East Side (and true New Yorkers will know that they might be not far away but they are worlds apart).

He’s not sure what to do with his life. He wants to be a writer but his publisher dad dismissed his work as “serviceable.” His mom is fragile emotionally and seems on the verge of falling apart. He is very much in love with Mimi (Clemons) who is more interested in a platonic relationship with him and to make matters worse, is headed for an internship in Slovakia. Thomas is trying to make some sense out of his life; fortunately, he meets W.F. Gerald (Bridges), a writer who lives in apartment 2B of his building (by extension meaning that Thomas lives in not 2B – think about it).. W.F. is kind of rough around the edges but he takes a fatherly interest in Thomas, which suits Thomas just fine since his own dad is distant to say the least.

But Thomas’ world begins to spin completely out of control when he discovers that his dad is having an affair. He becomes obsessed with the mystery lady and discovers that her name is Johanna (Beckinsale) and that she works as a contractor in Ethan’s office. Thomas confronts Johanna and tells her to stop seeing his dad; the cool and collected Johanna responds that what Thomas is really saying is that he wants to sleep with Johanna himself. As it turns out, she’s right.

Thomas is caught up in a dilemma and he doesn’t know how to get out of it. The hypocrisy of his situation isn’t lost on him and so he decides to tell his dad that he knows about Johanna and furthermore, he’s sleeping with her himself. However, this revelation threatens to destroy Thomas’ family altogether leading the way for another stunning revelation that changes Thomas’ life forever.

The critics have been pretty much panning this which is a bit of a shame; it’s not a flawless film but I ended up liking it. Bridges is absolutely wonderful as W.F. and Beckinsale is sexy as all get out as the Other Woman. The dialogue has also been called tin-eared but I found it pretty sharp most of the time. I know, this isn’t the way real people talk – but it’s the way sophisticated New York literary sorts talk. Make of that what you will.

The main trouble here is Turner. His character is wishy-washy, vindictive and fully self-involved. There’s nothing mature about him – and yet the sophisticated literary type ends up sleeping with him and later in the film, another woman falls in love with him. ‘Course, I’m not a woman but I find it absolutely flabbergasting that any woman would see him as the object of love. He offers nothing but immaturity and leaps to conclusion that rival Evel Knieval flying over Snake River Gorge.

And yet they do. Then again, there’s a bit of a literati soap opera feel to the whole thing. It doesn’t have to make sense; it just has to create drama. This is very Noo Yawk which may put some folks off on it – there are certain parts of the country where being from the Big Apple is a hanging offense. Some have compared this to the Woody Allen of the 90s which is not Allen’s best creative period; I can see the Allen comparison but I would push it back a decade.

The soundtrack is a bit eclectic but in a good way; you get Simon and Garfunkel (including the title song) and Dylan, both of whom evoke New York City in a certain era although this is set in modern day. The cast also overcomes some of the script’s flaws, particularly Bridges, Beckinsale and Nixon who does fragile about as well as anybody. There is some charm here, enough to make it a worthwhile alternative to late August film programming. This won’t be for everyone but it might just be for you.

REASONS TO GO: Bridges is absolutely delightful. The dialogue is sharp. There’s some strong music on the soundtrack.
REASONS TO STAY: Turner is completely unconvincing in the lead role. Could be a little too New York literati for most
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and a bit of drug-related material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second 2017 film with a title shared with a Simon and Garfunkel song (Baby Driver was the first).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Graduate
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Everything, Everything

Liza, Liza, Skies are Grey


Life’s a beach.

(2017) Coming of Age (Ocean) Mikey Madison, Sean H. Scully, Kristin Minter, Kwame Boateng, Valerie Rae Miller, Adele René, James Austin Kerr, John-Paul Lavoisier, Madison Iseman, Eric Henry, Samira Izadi, Kris Park, Shamar Sanders, Robert John Brewer, Nandini Minocha, James Liddell, Thomas Archer, Evelyn Lorena, Jessica Bues, Kathryn Jurbala. Directed by Terry Sanders

 

Growing up is no easy task. It never has been. Growing up in 1966, for example; kids had a lot on their plate. The Vietnam war was raging, sexual revolution was in full swing, drugs were becoming a thing, the atomic bomb being dropped by the Soviets was a real worry and parents were becoming absorbed in their own issues, so much so that they didn’t have time to think about their kids who were floundering in the surf without a life preserver in sight.

Liza (Madison) is a sweet girl. She plays the cello in the school orchestra, and is interested in the social interests of the day – the war, racial injustice, and so on. Ever since her father inexplicably killed himself, she and her mother (Minter) have been distant. Mom is certain that Liza hates her; Liza doesn’t hate her mother so much as is puzzled by her. Liza’s been dating another sweet boy, Brett (Scully). Liza is also reaching her sexual awakening. She’s still a virgin, but she doesn’t want to remain that way. Curious and forthright, she feels the need to ask her cello teacher (René) about her experiences with men. Of course, being an awkward 15-year-old, she phrases it this way – “You’ve slept with a lot of men, haven’t you?”

Unfortunately for Liza, her mother doesn’t approve of Brett and tries to set her up with an older guy who turns out to be a lot less nice than mom thinks. Mom’s horrible boyfriend (Lavoisier) also makes an attempt to “seduce” Liza although most would call it an attempted rape. Worst of all, Brett who ha been living with his aunt, has been summoned by his father to live with him in New York which will mean the end of his nascent relationship with Liza. Determined to be “his first,” she and Brett take a road trip on his Triumph motorcycle (another reason Mom is less than overjoyed about Liza’s taste in boys) up the California coast, meeting up with creepy hotel clerks, happy hippies and redneck bikers most of whom have designs on Liza.

Sanders won an Oscar producing a documentary; that’s to the good. To the bad, he’s an octogenarian trying to tell the story of a teenage girl’s sexual coming of age. I don’t think he got the memo that there are some stories to tell that old men probably don’t have a clue about. I’m not saying that only teenage girls can make movies about teen girls discovering their sexuality but I think it helps if the filmmaker was a teen girl at some point.

The micro budget for the film didn’t allow for a real immersion into 1966 so there are mainly inserts of news footage, anti-war handbills posted on walls and shots of areas of Los Angeles that haven’t changed much since that era. There are also a smattering of era jargon like “groovy” and “far out.”

The dialogue here is more than cringeworthy, it is basically unlistenable. Real human beings don’t talk like this. Real human beings never talked like this. It doesn’t help that the cast is obviously uncomfortable with the words they’re speaking as their delivery of said dialogue is mega-stiff, as if the actors know that the words they’re speaking are anything but authentic. I would feel for the cast except there is a real sense that none of them want to be there. The delivery is rushed, the body language between Brett and Liza is unconvincing and none of the performances stand out. From a writing standpoint it feels like a juvenile novel written by someone who can’t remember what it is to be young.

There are some sweet moments – as when Liza dances to the ad jingle for Virginia Slims cigarettes, singing along with the catchy tune – and then sneering to Brett “We’ve come a long way baby. Now we can get cancer too.” It’s one of the better lines of dialogue although it may be anachronistic; I am not sure the surgeon general’s report on the link between cancer and cigarettes had come out by 1966. It may have but I can’t be bothered to look it up as I normally would; I don’t think enough of my readers are going to bother to see this. Needless to say, sweet moments like that are few and far between in the film.

The movie is a mess unfortunately. The cast is young and earnest and I hope that they don’t get discouraged by the film. There are plenty of good movies being made and hopefully some of them will find one to sink their teeth into; it’s truly hard to make a determination of underlying talent when a movie is so magnificently fouled up from a writing and directing standpoint. However, I have to say that this is extraordinarily hard to sit through and I feel as if I should get some sort of medal for doing so. Feel free to check it out if you have a masochistic streak in you, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

REASONS TO GO: There is some sweetness in some of the scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is absolutely dreadful. The acting is stiff and unrealistic and the actors are obviously sending strongly worded emails to their managers about choosing better projects.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity, a smattering of profanity, plenty of sexuality and a couple of scenes of attempted rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie’s title is taken from the 1929 George Gershwin song “Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away)” the best-known version of which was performed by Al Jolson.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Girl Flu
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT: Turn it Around: The Story of East Bay Punk

What’s in the Darkness (Hei chu you shen me)


Qu Jing is just looking for some clues.

Qu Jing is just looking for some clues.

(2016) Drama (HH Pictures) Su Xiaotong, Guo Xiao, Liu Dan, Lu Qiwei, Zhou Kui, Jiang Xueming, Li Shiru, Wu Juejin, Ren Long, Liu Jieyi, Gu Qilin, Li Mei, Jia Zhigang, Deng Gang, Wang Zhengping, Jiu Qi, Han Yuye, Tian Feng, Luo Wei, Shi Ying, Yan Jia, Ma Chenxiang, Yu Zhengnan, Huang Xiaoya, Wu Yue, Du Gangqiang, Liu Kaiming, Huang Yan, Xia Hongxia. Directed by Yichun Wang

NYAFF

Growing up is a dangerous, frightening thing. It’s a struggle, dealing with all the hormones coursing through your body, trying to understand the world around you as best you can without much help from your parents and other adult figures in your life, although they often mean well; they just don’t get what you’re going through and in any case, they never have anything good to say about you – it’s all just complain, complain, complain and nothing you do is ever right. Lucky for you, they don’t have time for anyone but themselves and frankly, you want to keep it that way.

Qu Jing (Xiaotong) feels exactly that way. She’s a pre-pubescent girl in a Chinese mainland technical high school in the Hubei province in 1991. In the late spring, the nude body of a woman is found in the local lake. She’d been raped and murdered, and a crude cross carved into her thigh. Qu Jing’s dad, Qu Zhicheng (Xiao) is a police officer, one who happens to have been trained in forensic medicine. He’s the butt of jokes to his peers and a source for exasperation to his commanding officer, Chief Cao (Shiru). He prefers to use deductive reasoning and follow clues while his fellows prefer choosing suspects pretty much at random and beating confessions out of them. It keeps the rate of conviction impressively high.

When a second victim is found, pressure is put on the cops to solve the case and they haul in a suspect (Gang) and get him to confess to the crime. Qu Zhicheng is skeptical about the accuracy of their investigation; the discovery of another victim, killed while the suspect is in police custody, proves him right.

Qu Jing is having problems of her own. Her mother (Dan) is a shrill shrew, unhappy in her marriage and her life and taking out all her issues on her family. Zhang Xue (Qiwei) is Jing’s best friend but Xue’s not the nicest person ever; she is condescending to the point of arrogance, knowing that her beauty and sexuality will take her far – far out of town, which is what she wants to be (as far as the more tropical Hanmei resorts if she has her way). Xue is sexually active and has attracted the attention of Zhao Fei (Xueming), a local tough guy and petty criminal.

Qu Jing is beginning to have hormonal shifts that are causing her to think about sex. She asks questions like ‘”Does giving birth hurt?” and reads clinical manuals, trying to find out everything she can. She goes to romance movies and watches the love scenes with great interest. When Xue disappears after being thrown out of class for falling asleep, the murders begin to come frighteningly close to home.

I originally listed this as a suspense film but changed my mind; it’s not a mystery. It’s more of a drama. This isn’t a police procedural. The crimes here hang on the periphery, coloring the proceedings but never dominating them. Yichun wrote this as largely autobiographical. Part of that is why this is set in the era that it is, and the era this takes place in is critical to why this movie exists.

China was on the verge of changing its economic structure from pure communism to a blend of communism and capitalism which it employs today. While the rural areas, such as the one this was set in, still carried over many of the same restrictive policies that existed for the past decades, change was in the air.

The performances here are interesting. Xiaotong is a real find; 17 years old when she made this, she shows a great deal of emotional depth, from playful to petulant, sullen to joyful.  She epitomizes the confusion and pain of growing up, particularly in a household where she’s largely reminded at how much it cost the family to even bring her in to this world. She was the second child in an era when families that had more than one child suffered heavy economic penalties for it; her older brother, away at university, doesn’t appear other than as a reference in the film.

Guo Xiao also does an outstanding job as the somewhat nebbish police officer, adrift in a sea of incompetent goons. He lashes out at his daughter, henpecked by his wife and laughed at by his fellow officers. Deep down however he loves his daughter as only a devoted father can. He shows it in between bouts of screaming at her for her transgressions, real or imagined.

The dynamic here is a lot different than what we’re used to from Western films. The police are not only as fallible as all get out, they’re also clods who do little constructive to protect or serve. Fathers and mothers aren’t supportive and wise; they have their own hang-ups and issues and don’t necessarily have their children’s best interests at heart at all times.

The society they live in is repressive and prudish but something darker lurks beneath the surface at all time. All around Qu Jing and Xu there are men leering lecherously; an old man in a senior home makes a pass at young Qu Jing in a particularly loathsome manner. The message here seems to be that while some things can be repressed on a societal level, that doesn’t mean those urges aren’t still there.

The senior home sequence and others like it might be off-putting for some who may be a little queasy at the sexualizing of prepubescent and pubescent girls, who are often made to wear make-up for choir performances and school functions.

This doesn’t have the kind of pace you’d find in a typical mystery. There are no gun battles, no car chases, no fistfights. The ending is abrupt and disconcerting. We don’t get much detail on what the police are doing to solve the crime (other than picking up the wrong people and forcing them to confess). We get a sense that after the film ends, things aren’t going to change much.

When all is said and done, this is more of a slice of life type of film; this particular slice happens to have a serial killer in it. It’s like getting a slice of mincemeat pie and biting into a clove. It’s just the luck of the draw. However, this is a tasty slice of pie from someone you can tell is going to only get better at baking pies. I can’t wait to see what comes next from Yichun’s oven.

REASONS TO GO: Unsettling atmosphere keeps viewers from getting too comfortable. Interesting portrait of a period in China less familiar to the West.
REASONS TO STAY: Sexualizing of young girls is a bit off-putting. Too slow-paced for most American audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: Sexual content, some foul language and a disturbing image or two.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Qu Jing is the same age as director Yichun would have been in 1991.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Diary of a Serial Killer
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Buddymoon