Godavari


Nishikant is so angry even the masks are amused.

(2021) Drama (Blue Drop) Jitendra Joshi, Vikendra Gokhale, Neena Kulkarni, Gauri Nalawade, Priyadarshan Jadhav, Sanjay Mone, Saniya Bhandare, Mohit Takalkar. Directed by Nikhil Mahajan

 

Rivers can feel timeless; moving majestically in their way, they can be a comfort. But rivers can be soiled, made filthy. Rivers can be dammed and forced into different pathways. Thus can the will of man overpower the inexorable flow.

Nishikant (Joshi) would love to exert his will over the Godavari River that flows alongside his home in Nashik, a city about 98 miles northeast of Mumbai. He is a landlord, the son of a well-off family with a pleasant home overlooking the river, but he chooses not to live there even though he is welcome. He spends his time collecting rent from the many tenants in his buildings. He responds to them with scorn and annoyance, which is pretty much how he responds to everybody, including his mother (Kulkarni), his bedridden and dementia-ridden grandfather (Mone) and even his devoted wife (Nalawade). He seems to only show tenderness towards his young daughter (Bhandare) who alone shines joy in his life. He somewhat tolerates his friend Kasaav (Jadhav). His father (Gokhale) he doesn’t even tolerate and the two don’t speak.

Nishikant has a pair of life-changing events staring him in the face. One, I will not reveal here. The second is an offer from a developer to buy some of his riverside property, which would involve the eviction of a number of tenants but would fetch the family a tidy profit. His mother is against the idea but Nishikant is resolute.

This is unusual for Indian films in that it is more of a character study. Most Indian films that make it to the States (and Canada) are either Bollywood musicals with bright colors and much spontaneous street dancing, or rip-roaring action movies with tough guy heroes and many explosions. Nishikant seems to be something of a sourpuss from the beginning and one wonders what on earth he has to be so enraged about, but it is rage he feels. Rage at the river that is so polluted that its waters are unsafe to drink; rage at his station in life that hems him in to a job he can’t stand; rage at his family which seems to be caught in an inertia-free existence. At times it feels like that rage is going to break free and Nishikant is going to just snap.

Joshi does a pretty credible job in humanizing a character that is hard to like. He chain-smokes, often in the privacy of the small apartment he has exiled himself to. He likes to spend time by the river, despite all of his vitriol directed against it and those tend to be some of the more quietly effective scenes in the film. He has good chemistry with Jadhav whose Kasaav, while remaining a peripheral character, nonetheless seems to understand Nishikant the most clearly.

The soundtrack is also somewhat unusual for an Indian film in that composer Av Prafullachandra has written a score that seems to blend Western hard rock (or more accurately, classic rock) with traditional Indian melodies and instrumentation. The mash-up isn’t as jarring as you might think.

My one issue with the film is that Mahajan at times seems to be more intent on bringing in visual metaphors rather than sticking to the story. The pacing is slow (again, unusual for Indian films which tend to move along at breakneck speed) but Mahajan does a terrific job of developing his characters, particularly that of Nishikant.

This isn’t always an easy movie to watch and it does require some patience, but for those who are willing to invest the time and attention, the movie is a rewarding one. Unusual can also be good.

The movie is making it’s world premiere tomorrow at the Vancouver International Film Festival, although it is currently available online at the Festival website in Canada only through October 11. It is set to debut in India in December and may possibly hit North American theaters around the same time.

REASONS TO SEE: Like India herself, there is a mixture of beauty and filth.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times seems to go for visual symbolism at the expense of story.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Making its world premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival.BEYOND THE THEATERS: VIFF online site (Canada only – through October 11)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ikiro
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Be Still

Best Sellers


Nobody does glee like Michael Caine.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Together


Apparently the pandemic CAN be used as couples therapy.

(2021) Drama (Bleecker Street) James McAvoy, Sharon Horgan, Samuel Logan. Directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin

 

The pandemic is, in some ways, a screenwriter’s dream. It is a situation everyone on the planet is affected by, something we all can relate to. As more and more movies come out set during lockdowns and quarantines, the question becomes whether we are exploring the topic too soon (as even now we are suffering through a surge in Delta variant cases) or whether what we have to say at this point is premature.

A brief rant before I commence – I have always found the trope of not naming the characters to be more pretentious than anything. Yes, I get that they are supposed to be “everymen” and “everywomen” for the sake of the narrative, but it’s more or less a cop-out these days. Give your characters names, and not just for the convenience of the critics either – it’s disrespectful to the audience. End rant.

An unnamed couple (grrr!), played by Horgan and McAvoy, are thrown together by the lockdown in England. They are an upper middle class couple who couldn’t be more different; he’s a conservative entrepreneur who doesn’t have much use for what he calls “the chattering class,” while she’s a progressive liberal who is an executive for a non-profit. But they have a young ten-year-old special needs kid named Artie (Logan) together, and – not for nothing – they hate each other’s guts. The only thing keeping them from going their separate ways is Artie.

The movie takes place from day one of the English lockdown into the spring of 2021. Things are divided into chapters which are delineated by what day of the lockdown it is, and how many deaths from COVID have been recorded in England by that date, which seems to be a not-so-veiled swipe at the Boris Johnson administration (it gets not-so-veiled during a Horgan monologue later in the movie).

Most of the dialogue is delivered at the camera, as if you’re a friend or relative on Zoom, and the couple are making their case for why the other one is the reason the marriage is in trouble. That is punctuated with often heart-rending monologues – in Horgan’s case, the absolutely horrific treatment her mother receives in a care home, while in McEvoy’s an encounter with an anti-masker that causes him to rethink things.

The acting here is superb. Given dialogue that is worthy of Aaron Sorkin. There is some snappy repartee and plenty of back-and-forth between the couple, who are often talking over each other in the way that couples do. That gives the film a kind of naturality that brings more authenticity to the movie than it otherwise might have. The screenplay was originally meant to be a stage play, but the practical complications of mounting a stage production during a pandemic led this to be turned into a movie, but it still retains some of its stage-y qualities. You don’t really notice them, however, because the acting and writing are both so damn good.

I’m not sure if this will end up being a time capsule of this period in history, or something that speaks to deeper truths in relationships. I tend to subscribe to the latter; there is a timelessness about the issues between the couple that are only framed by the pandemic rather than are caused by it. I was completely blown away by the emotional resonance that the film brought and recommend it thoroughly as one of the best movies of the year. If ever you needed an excuse to get out to the theaters, this movie is it.

REASONS TO SEE: Superior writing and direction. Natural performances from Morgan and McElroy, who is particularly impressive. A powerful, emotional time capsule of 2020-21.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not so sure using a pandemic as couples therapy is appropriate.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in only ten days.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews; Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scenes from a Marriage
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
The Fatal Raid

It’s Not a Burden


They care for us when we’re young; we care for them when they’re old.

(2021) Documentary (Gravitas) Michelle Boyaner, Elaine Boyaner George, Brother Kenneth, Morris Boyaner, Esther Lapiduss, Maxine Lapiduss, Sally Lapiduss. Directed by Michelle Boyaner

 

We are seeing a shift in America’s age; we are getting older as a nation. The baby boomers are now retiring and often, being forced into retirement communities and assisted living centers. Their adult children often end up caring for them the same way their parents cared for them as children. It’s time, the film seems to be saying, to return the favor.

Documentary director Michelle Boyaner found herself in that position with her own parents. She has a bit of a unique situation; her parents divorced when she was younger after having had eight children together. Her mom Elaine decided (for reasons that she sort of addresses in the movie) that she couldn’t be a mom any longer, so all eight of the children were sent to live with their father while Elaine moved to Utah, converted to the Church of Latter-Day Saints, and married a new husband. Michelle, the oldest, helped raise her siblings, but a chasm had been formed between her and her mother. The relationship between the two women was cordial, but very cold.

It was assumed that Michelle’s younger sister Danielle would be the one to look after Elaine when her mom started showing signs of dementia, but Danielle passed away unexpectedly. On her deathbed, she made Elaine promise to look after their mom. Michelle, still harboring resentment towards her mother, reluctantly agreed.

The film is subtitled The Humor and Heartache of Raising Elderly Parents and there is some humor here. Michelle (and most of the other caregiving subjects interviewed here) counsels patience, and that’s excellent advice. For example, Elaine has trouble remembering that she sold her house on Serenade Lane in Huntington Beach in 1983. She constantly refers to the house and Michelle often has to remind her that it’s no longer hers.

Michelle spends a good deal of time interviewing a whole lot of other people in similar situations – adult children acting as caregivers to elderly parents, most with some form of dementia or another. For example, we get the vivacious 96-year-old entertainer from Pittsburgh whose daughters don’t quite have the energy to keep up with her, or the aging monk who runs a care home for retired monks who have no family to care for them, or the former dancer on Broadway who is visited by members of the LGBTQ community who act as “chosen family” members. Some of their stories are touching, others humorous but many of them are actually kind of similar. This is a case where less is definitely more; I would have preferred fewer testimonials, but more in-depth ones. Then again, I’m definitely a quality over quantity kind of guy.

The central story revolves around a metaphor of an amusement park in which you try to survive the rides without throwing up afterwards, and the metaphor is kind of apt. One thing for certain is that you have to have a plan; most of us are going to face the aging of our loved ones at some point and should have a working idea of the options available to them. The movie does show a few of them – parents living with their children, parents living in residential care facilities, parents with visiting health care professionals that perform in-home treatment on a regular basis.

The movie has some truly heartbreaking moments and wise viewers will have some tissue paper handy to dab away moisture at the corner of their eyes that might unexpectedly erupt. One of the things that I took away from the film was that the estrangement between Michelle and her mother more or less evaporated during the time she was caring for her and the time the two spent together actually strengthened their bonds which I don’t think the younger woman expected. I wouldn’t say that this is indispensable – the film is a bit unfocused and repetitive in places, and could have done with more information on how to find support if you find yourself in a situation where you’re providing care for an elderly parent or parents with dementia. However, this certainly gives a perspective on the situation and might be a good starting point for those who see the road ahead leading in that very direction.

REASONS TO SEE: The journey is heartbreaking. The ending is extremely poignant.
REASONS TO AVOID: Could have used fewer interview subjects and more depth on the ones they chose to keep.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some frank conversations about the consequences of aging and dementia.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Boyaner was previously nominated for an Emmy for her 2015 film Packed in a Trunk: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: It Is Not Over Yet
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Undercover Punch and Gun

It Is Not Over Yet


The picture of compassion.

(2021) Documentary (First Hand) May Bjerre Elby. Directed by Louise Detlefsen

 

Aging is a bitch. Getting old means the physical degrading of our bodies as we slowly lose the ability to do the things we once took for granted. Worse yet, society tends to treat the aged as lovable idiots who are terrible drivers, absolutely clueless when it comes to technology and generally burdens on society.

As I write this, my mother is 85 years old. I see her regularly and yes, her memory isn’t as reliable as it once was. She tires easily. She has many infirmities which she sometimes complains about. I can see her spiraling down, no longer the woman I remember her being, the woman who raise my sister and I, who worked as hard as anyone I’ve ever known and who fought fiercely for my sister and I to get the very best opportunities we could to have a good life. She remains sharp and still essentially herself. Not every child gets that blessing for their parents.

In Denmark, as in the United States, elder care is a problem, particularly for those with dementia. Often their kids at some point have to put them in a care facility, exhausted and no onger to provide the care for their parents that is needed. In those places, the patients are often medicated within an inch of their lives, shut in their rooms, frightened, angry and lonely, their memories faded to virtually nothing. They are given little stimulation and less attention.

Danish nurse May Bjerre Elby worked in facilities like that. Worse yet, she had to place her father in a facility like that and watch the neglect take its toll until he passed away. Horrified at the treatment of people who had worked all their lives and helped build Denmark into the country it is today, she decided to do something about it. She opened a care center in Dasmarsminde, north of Copenhagen. Rather than utilizing advanced technology and pharmaceuticals (her residents are given little more than occasional pain medication for the aches and pains of old age), Elby instead went back to the philosophies of the original nurse Florence Nightingale as well as Danish philosopher Løgstrup for a more compassionate kind of care.

The eleven residents are given almost resort-like treatment; they are led on walks through the beautiful Danish countryside, into the garden and chicken coop, and are treated as adults. Staff look them in the eyes and give them hugs, also encouraging them to hug trees (something my mother would definitely approve of) and in general, enjoy the moment. Cake is served on a regular basis. When one of the residents passes away, the survivors drink a toast to their fallen comrade and sing their favorite song as their coffins are wheeled out to a waiting hearse.

We are introduced to a variety of the residents such as temperamental Torkild whose wife Vibeke has become unable to care for herself; Torkild also has dementia but refuses to believe it so his children manipulate him into staying with Vibeke until she is able to walk again, something that is unlikely to happen There is Inge, who flirts shamelessly with Torkild, and whose husband Jørgen has essentially given up on life, unable to take care of himself or his wife. There’s gentle Grete who breaks down at one point in the arms of a patient staffer. And yes, we meet the staff as well, particularly Dorte and Lotte.

The movie is at times overwhelming, but there is so much beauty here; yes, there are beautiful shots of the woods in all four Danish seasons (the filmmakers spent a year at the facility) but it is the beauty of the human spirit that really impresses about this movie. May’s facility is the sort of place I would want my mother to be in if her cognitive functions deteriorated to the point where she needed better care than my sister or I could provide for her ourselves – and I do think that’s at the core of May’s philosophy of care; treating the patients as she would want her own parents to be treated. It is a revolutionary – and somewhat controversial – idea for the care for our elderly, and one I hope is adopted throughout the world. Those of that age group spent their lives working, building a home for their children, creating the world (sometimes for better, sometimes for worse) that we live in. They deserve to be given dignity, respect and compassion. Perhaps if we treated our elderly that way, we could learn to treat each other that way as well. And wouldn’t that make for a better world entirely?

REASONS TO SEE: A beautiful rendering of how humans respond to compassion. Treats the elderly with respect. Highly moving and emotionally gripping. Tackles a subject we tend to turn away from as a society.
REASONS TO AVOID: Can get extremely painful to watch.
FAMILY VALUES: The film deals with adult themes and the sometimes painful realities of dementia.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bjerre recently won the prestigious Fonsberg Prize, an award given to Danish citizens who raise awareness of social issues.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/7/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dick Johnson is Dead
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Everything in the End

X


When you see the price they paid I’m sure you’ll come and join the masquerade.

(2019) Thriller (Cinedigm Hope Raymond, Eliza Bolvin, Brian Smick, Zachary Cowan, Valerie Fachman, Hans Probst, Ashley Raggs, Mioyoko Sakatani, Perry Fenton, Vicky Lopez, Mira Gutoff, Hunter Ridenour, George Arana, Jaime Soltys, Tony Clark, Wendy Taylor, Wendy Wyatt-Mair, Trevor Ossian Cameron, Malachi Maynard, Ethan Fry, Amber Tiana, Celina Garcia. Directed by Scott J. Ramsey

 

There are movies that exist in a larger universe, whether it be a shared cinematic universe like Marvel or the Friday the 13th franchise, or in our own reality. Then there are other movies that seem to exist in their own space, separate from what we know and understand. They create their own reality – that’s not necessarily a bad thing, by the way. It’s not necessarily a good thing, either.

In a beautiful mansion on the rugged Central California coast, a monthly masquerade ball for charity is about to take place. Run by a group called the Foundation (which is also the name of the production company for this and other films, something that might feel a bit uppity to some), the privacy and security of those attending are taken very seriously. The ball is by invitation only. Everyone is required to wear masks and I’m not talking the kind that the CDC recommends. Nobody is allowed to use their own names – they’re all assigned letter-and-number code names, like B7 or G8. I’m not sure if this makes them sound like spies or bingo numbers.

The grand muckety-muck of the Foundation is Christian (Raymond), also known as the Queen, and she and a select few realize that the charity ball is just a pretense; once the checkbooks are put away and the more repressed sorts have gone home for the evening, the party turns into a huge sex party where anything (and everything) goes, so long as those who attend are not forced to do things they don’t want to do. At this particular party, Christian notices an interloper and she eventually susses out the identity of Stella (Bolvin), an old rival from high school. She is now a fairly well-known sex cam performer, although her boyfriend Jackson (Cowan) isn’t aware of that fact – he thinks she’s teaching night school. She was invited by Christian’s right hand man Danny (Smick), ostensibly to add some notoriety to the mix, but in large part to get under the skin of his employer.

It doesn’t seem to faze Christian much, and she ends up inviting Stella to the next one, urging her to bring along Jackson – whom Christian had a serious crush on back in high school. At the next party, things start to go horribly wrong for Christian as her secret perversion is revealed, her mother Lynda (Fichman), a former pop star, and who suffers from dementia, turns up and all of this threatens the entire structure of the Foundation.

This is described – accurately enough – as an erotic thriller mixed in with LGBTQ+ camp with, I might add, some dark comedy thrown in for good measure. But the real meat of the movie is as a character study, as the movie really looks in at the fragile reality behind the façade of a strong capable woman that is Christian.

The movie enjoys some sumptuous production values considering its low budget, and enjoys a really nifty soundtrack. The movie missteps a bit with the acting performances – the acting is like what you might find at a Broadway audition circa 1957 and is a little overly broad and stiff for the movie camera. Some of the dialogue is cringeworthy, even though (I think) it’s meant as satire. The film owes a lot to Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut in terms of the set-up and the overall air of decadence, but there’s a very thin line between pushing boundaries and coming off as pretentious.

This isn’t strictly LGBTQ+ either – I would categorize the sex more as pansexual than anything else – and while there is a certain amount of fluidity in the lead characters’ sexuality (particularly Christian’s) there is all kinds of hooking up going on that will titillate those of any sexual preference, although there is surprisingly little graphic sexual content considering the setting.

The ending is not at all what you would expect; normally I find that to be a good thing, but to be honest, it didn’t feel earned and the more I thought about it as time has gone by since I screened the film, the less it felt right. To be fair, this was never meant to be a movie for a wide audience; this isn’t going to be everyone’s brand of vodka. If you’re the sort who delights in the erotic (particularly the fringes of same), this might well be the kind of entertainment you’re looking for and then some. For most though, it’s going to be a hard sell.

REASONS TO SEE: The production values are surprisingly strong.
REASONS TO AVOID: Well over the line into pretentiousness.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and sexual references as well as some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A companion album featuring music by goth-pop artists The Major Arcana (of which director Scott J. Ramsey is a member) entitled At the Devil’s Ball was released in conjunction with the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eyes Wide Shut
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Earwig and the Witch

Little Fish


When you’re losing everything, hold on to what you have tightly.

(2020) Romance (IFCOlivia Cooke, Jack O’Connell, Soko, Raul Castillo, David Lennon, Mackenzie Caldwell, Ross Wirtanen, Heather Decksheimer, Natalie Smith, Ronald Robinson, Wyatt Cameron, Morgana Wyllie, Monique Phillips, Paul Almeida, Toby Hargrave, Albert Nicholas, Chris Shields, Jeff Sanca, Naomi King, Darius Willis, Emily Stott, Samantha Spear. Directed by Chad Hartigan

 

What makes us who we are? There are those who will argue (convincingly) that it is our experiences, our memories. Everything in our lives is filtered through them. The loss of memory is a kind of death; the loss of the essence of who we are, dying away in a fog of forgetfulness.

A pandemic has swept the world – no, not that one – of a disease called NIA: neuroinflammatory affliction. Think of it as a kind of supercharged Alzheimer’s; it affects the old and the young, causing memories to disappear; sometimes all at once, other times gradually. Emma (Cooke), a British ex-pat working as a veterinarian in Seattle, is fully aware of the ramifications of the disease. She is married to Jude (O’Connell), a photographer. She is trying to document everything about their relationship in the case that one or both of them are afflicted by it.

It has already hit close to home. Musician friend Ben (Castillo) has contracted the virus and is desperately racing to get his songs recorded before he forgets them or how to play at all. He is also beginning to forget his wife Samantha (Soko) which is terrifying to Emma. It becomes all the more terrifying when both her mother and Jude get NIA and while Emma can do nothing for her mother, she desperately tries everything to save her husband’s memory before she becomes just another face in the crowd to him.

This is a very poignant film that not only spotlights the true horror of diseases like Alzheimer’s but underscores the disappearance of thousands due to the pandemic we’re all experiencing. Hartigan utilizes the overcast Seattle weather and the rugged landscape of the Pacific Northwest to great effect. The movie is narrated by Emma as a series of journal entries in her quest to keep the relationship alive in Jack’s fading memory; the futility of her effort makes the movie all the more affecting.

Much of the reason the film works is the obvious chemistry between Cooke and O’Connell’ the intimacies of little moments – a touch here, a glance there, a caress across the back of the head – feel authentic and serve to remind us that true love is not a series of grand gestures, but of small ones. Yes, there are some Hollywood moves like kisses while holding sparklers on the fourth of July, piggyback rides and other horseplay but because the feeling between Cooke and O’Connell comes off so genuinely it doesn’t feel as forced as it might ordinarily.

We get very little context on how the disease is affecting the world at large. We get a sense that people are forgetting how to drive their boats and cars, abandoning them and walking (or swimming) back home. Most air travel has been banned because of the possibility that a pilot might forget how to fly a plane mid-flight. We don’t see how that would then affect supply chains, of how civilization itself would start to come to a screeching halt. Other than a scene at a clinic where people are signing up for an experimental treatment that could potentially be a cure, we don’t see the panic something like this would cause. If people aren’t willing to wear a simple cloth mask, how would they react to something like NIA?

For those who have lost loved ones to COVID, this might hit a little too close to home. Those with loved ones suffering from Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia may also find this troubling. For all others, the bittersweet quality might be the perfect tonic for some Valentine’s Day snuggling in front of the TV or movie screen.

REASONS TO SEE: A heartbreaking allegory. Terrific chemistry between Cooke and O’Connell. Achingly bittersweet.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending seems a bit drawn out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although set during a pandemic, the movie was completed before COVID-19 was a news item.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YoTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews, Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Vow
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Woman in Motion

76 Days


Exhausted healthcare workers take a breather.

(2020) Documentary (MTV Films Various unidentified health care professionals and COVID patients Directed by Hao Wu, Weixi Chen and Anonymous

 

2020 will long be remembered as a tumultuous, challenging year and for many, the defining factor was (and is) the COVID-19 global pandemic. It first surfaced in China in late 2019 and soon became a global concern when the large city of Wuhan went into lockdown as the infection rate rose beyond the area’s health care system ability to adequately handle the influx of sick patients.

During the lockdown, two Chinese reporters – Weixi Chen and one who declined to release their name – were embedded in four Wuhan-area hospitals to see firsthand how the health care professionals dealt with the crisis. The footage was then sent to Chinese-American Hao Wu (The People’s Republic of Desirei) in Atlanta to edit the footage and put together a narrative.

What the audience is given is a “you are-there” look inside hospitals dealing with a terrifying and largely unknown disease that was spreading like wildfire through the city. We are treated to an emotional wallop in the opening scene as a nurse in hazmat suit runs down a hospital corridor, clearly distraught; her own father has contracted the disease and is dying. She longs to see him one last time, but this is denied her and she simply put, loses it as is completely understandable. She can do nothing but sob helplessly as her father gasps his last and his body is taken away for burial.

This sets the expectation that this isn’t going to be an ordinary documentary  We watch the doctors, nurses and technicians go about their daily routines which are anything but routine, watch as they grow progressivlely frustrated at the inability to treat the disease as they flail in the dark blindly, trying to alleviate the symptoms and save lives. Dealing with uncertainty and exhaustion, they are sometimes short with one another and often fall back on protocol in order to keep the hospital functioning in the face of rising panic. The patients are mostly terrified, wth the doctors able to bring them scant comfort and separated from loved ones who can only communicate with them via cell phone. In some cases, we have happy endings, as doctors see their recovered patients off as they are returned home to be quarantined an additional 14 days along with their family members.

There are some moments of wonderful tenderness, as a couple who have been separated from their newborn infant due to the mother having COVID when she delivered her, finally getting to meet their newborn after weeks of quarantine. We see a frustrating patient, an older man with dementia constantly battling his caregivers and refusing to follow their protocols, but eventually after weeks of hospitalization finally…well, you’ll just have to see for yourself.

There are also moments of grimness as we see a tub full of cell phones, taken from patients who have passed on, some of them ringing for those who can no longer answer. We also see the city streets deserted of traffic, a city that normally is bustling and alive, now a pandemic-induced ghost town. As the lockdown is lifted at the conclusion of the film, we hear the air raid sirens go off in memory of those that did not survive.

One of the memories I will take away from the film is one of the scenes near the end where a hospital administrator is charged with returning the disinfected personal effects of the deceased to their families. It’s heartbreaking to say the least and gives you an immediate understanding of the human toll of the disease; we see the numbers of the hospitalized and the dead, but we don’t really get it until we see the faces of those who are afflicted and of those who mourn the dead. It is a scene that is going on in thousands of hospitals across this country as well.

This is truly cinema verité, with the footage presented without commentary, musical accompaniement or much information beyond opening and closing title cards. The stories are allowed to be told with subtitleds flashing on the screen at a furious pace. The problem may be for those who have trouble reading them (and at times they are difficult to read because the subtitles are white and so too are the majority of hazmat suits and PPE worn by the medical professionals) quickly may quickly be left behind, for often the conversations are rapid fire as you might expect they would be in a crisis situation.

The movie is apolitical; they aren’t here to judge the Chinese nor compare them to anyone else. We just see events as they happened, edited to give context and to see the simple fact that most health care professionals are at heart deeply caring people no matter the nationality. We have been (rightfully) lionizing our frontline health care professionals of late for their extraordinary service to the community as we cope with a deadly pandemic that has claimed more than 400,000 lives in the United States alone and more than two million dead worldwide. Here, we see firsthand why we are doing so.

As we are still in the thrall of the pandemic, it is understandable that many might not wish to see a movie with the immediacy of 76 Days but we should, if only to get an appreciation and perspective on the reality of what the disease has done to us. While there is no commentary on how effective the Chinese response was as opposed to the American response, one can’t help but wonder if the Americans, who unlike the Chinese questioned their doctors and disease specialists and refused to wear masks or socially dstance (by contrast, you don’t see a single citizen of Wuhan without a mask), you can’t help but wonder if our numbers might not have been so tragically high had we been as cooperative as a society as the Chinese were. Food for thought.

REASONS TO SEE: An immersive look at what frontline health care workers are going through. Powerful and gut-wrenching. A little eerie in places. Makes one wonder how different things would be here if we had followed the Chinese model.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the subtitles are hard to read quickly enough.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes having to do with the current pandemic.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title refers to the amount of time that Wuham spent in lockdown during the initial crisis in 2019.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/28/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hot Zone
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Baby Done

The Artist’s Wife


Bruce Dern at work on another masterpiece.

(2019) Drama (StrandLena Olin, Bruce Dern, Juliet Rylance, Avan Jogia, Stefanie Powers, Tonya Pinkins, Catherine Curtin, Lukas Hassel, Caryn West, Ravi Cabot-Conyers, Elise Santora, Clare Louise Frost, Meadow Tien Nguy, Josh Mowery, Robert Myers, Gabriel Millman, Laura Chaneski, Peter Albrink, Alexandre Bagot, Gerardo Rodriguez, Dan Truman, Lyssa Mandel. Directed by Tom Dolby

 

Our country is aging, and as we do, we become more concerned with the problems of age – dementia being one of them. Most of us have known someone affected by it, either directly, or suffering because of a loved one affected by it. Hollywood finds this a particularly fertile ground for dramas, particularly of the Oscar-bait sort.

Richard Smythson (Dern) is one of the country’s pre-eminent artists, a man whose paintings routinely fetch six figures and whose name on the faculty alone can grant legitimacy to a college or university, but as lions go, he is feeling the chill of an oncoming winter. He is forgetful, and inspiration has fled, even as he prepares to what might very well be his final gallery show.

His second wife Claire (Olin) tries to keep things together, dealing with all the irritating issues of life which frees Richard to concentrate on his painting; as he says during an interview, “I create the art – Claire takes care of everything else.” The thing is, he means it as a compliment although most modern women probably would raise an eyebrow at that.

Claire is fully aware that her husband’s memory and talent are slipping away. She decides that she should reunite him with his daughter Angela (Rylance) and his grandson Diego (Cabot-Conyers) whom neither of them has met. In fact, Claire was ignorant of Angela’s sexual preference not to mention that her partner had recently left her for someone else.

And Angela is not just estranged from her dad, she’s really estranged from her dad. She wants nothing to do with him, no matter how long he may have left. Her life isn’t perfect, but she doesn’t need further drama that her often-cantankerous father sometimes creates. She reluctantly gets to know the persistent Claire a little better, and eventually agrees to come to their modernist house in the middle of nowhere for Christmas. But Richard being who he is, it becomes the most awkward Christmas celebration ever.

But as Richard is slowly disappearing, Claire – who was an artist herself before giving it up to be with Richard – is beginning to rediscover herself and in that rediscovery, just might find a way through the encroaching night which is falling on Richard and their life together.

The entire movie takes place in winter and cinematographer Ryan Earl Parker nicely utilizes snowy, white landscapes to great effect, reminding us that Richard is in the winter of his life. Dern, who has made a cottage industry of playing irascible old men of late, is never better, playing Richard with equal parts egotism, rage and eye-twinkling charm. Dolby doesn’t shy away from allowing Dern and Olin express the couple’s sexuality on the screen, something which Hollywood has a tendency to shy away from (except as a punch line).

But despite having Oscar nominee Dern front and center, this is not about Richard – the movie is called The Artist’s Wife, after all, not The Artist – but about Claire and Olin, a Swedish actress who has been almost criminally underrated for the most part, generates a performance that has to be one of the best of her career.

There is a consistency problem here; some of the situations feel very unlike how you’d expect the characters to react, which is puzzling because Dolby – one of the co-writers of the film – doesn’t turn away from his character’s foibles and issues. They are all fully human, but when Angela relents and brings her son and their calming babysitter Danny (Jogia) to visit, it feels forced, as if the script required a confrontation and this was the most expedient way to create one. The ending of the movie isn’t exactly what I expected, and in some ways felt like a cop-out, but it does remind us that love sometimes is about doing the hardest thing, and occasionally, the most unlikely.

There are moments that are maudlin, but Dolby largely avoids those sorts of opportunities; his own father passed away due to complications from Alzheimer’s in 2013 and certainly that experience likely played a role in the script-writing here. Those who have loved ones going through the process of memory and personality change may find this a painful watch, but those looking for some strong acting performances and a drama that doesn’t necessarily take the easiest road to the finish might well look into this one.

REASONS TO SEE: Dern is reliably captivating and Olin gives one of the best performances of her career. A portrait of love that transcends standard boundaries.
REASONS TO AVOID: Goes off the rails from time to time.
FAMILY VALUES: This is a fair amount of profanity, some sexuality and brief graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Olin initially went to university to study medicine and briefly worked as a nurse before moving into acting.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews, Metacritic: 53/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wife
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
We Are Many

Rent-a-Pal


Television is my only friend.

(2020) Horror (IFC MidnightBrian Landis Folkins, Wil Wheaton, Amy Rutledge, Kathleen Brady, Adrian Egolf, Josh Staab, Luke Sorge, Brandon Fryman, Olivia Hendrick, Karin Carr, Sara Woodyard. Directed by Jon Stevenson

 

Loneliness can do strange things to the human mind. It can be as comfortable as an old friend, but it also gives us the opportunity to twist and turn every life failure that we’ve partaken in. Eventually, loneliness feeds on us much as a vulture that isn’t willing for the carrion to die.

David (Folkins) lives in a small Midwestern town and takes care of his mother (Brady) who is suffering from dementia, often mistaking David for his deceased father. Mom is often nasty to her son, who just seems to take it with a shrug. It’s 1990 and he doesn’t even have online chat rooms for company; mostly he watches old movies with his mom. He has gotten desperate enough to enroll in a video dating service.

This particular one requires their clients to make an introductory video. The “relationship experts” that work at the service then match the tapes up with people with similar interests; if the client wants to view the tape of someone who matches with him, they have to pay for the privilege. It’s lucrative, but you’d never know it from David who doesn’t match up with anybody.

On a trip back to the service to re-record his video as an update, David happens upon a videotape in the bargain bin called “Rent-a-Pal” and takes it and is thus introduced to Andy (Wheaton), a grinning sweater vest-wearing guy who carries on a conversation with pauses so that the viewer can respond. The lonely David is skeptical at first but eventually seizes on this lifeline and begins to converse with Andy, playing the tape night after night after night.

Then, something of a miracle happens – David gets a match, from Lisa (Rutledge), a kind-hearted nurse. The date goes well, and things are suddenly looking up for David. However, Andy isn’t so happy about his friend deserting him for a mere woman; there’s about to be a battle for David’s attention and it’s not going to be pretty.

Loneliness and isolation are particularly on our minds in this age of quarantine, where most of our interactions are done via Zoom and when more and more people who are working from home and sheltering in place by themselves are finding themselves to be more and more suicidal. Just because we’re safe from a coronavirus doesn’t necessarily mean we are safe. Depression is far more insidious and doesn’t respect a mask.

David is one of those big, lumbering schlubs who are awkward both socially and physically. His heart seems to be in the right place but the more the movie wears on, the more we see how wounded his loneliness has made him. Gradually, he begins to descend into madness as he imagines that Andy is talking directly to him and listening to his every confession of failure. For Folkins, it is a masterful performance and one you won’t soon forget.

But as good as Folkins is, Wheaton is just as good and maybe a little bit better. He comes off as a cross between Mister Rogers and Beelzebub and his innocuous sweater vest and disarming grin doesn’t hide the fact that Andy doesn’t like women very much, and isn’t a particularly nice guy. I thought at first this would be like what Wesley Crusher would be like at 40, but that’s not quite accurate; it would be like what Wesley Crusher would be like at 40 if he had completely failed at life and romance.

Stevenson in addition to writing and directing the film also edited it, and he shows some real skills in all three; the editing is masterfully done, often giving the illusion that David is having a different conversation with Andy even though Andy isn’t saying anything different than he usually does. It raises the question in the viewer’s mind if there isn’t something supernatural going on, although what’s going on is clearly mostly in between David’s ears. Stevenson also invokes a strong sense of period, with the videocassettes and utilizing a great score by Jimmy Weber that calls to mind some of John Carpenter’s work.

The final scenes are fairly gory and more of a standard horror film type of thing, which some critics found disappointing after the effective build-up of tension and suspense; I thought that the ending was justifiable and while it is a distinct left turn from the feel of the rest of the movie, it isn’t too far of a change of route.

This is a solid suspense/psychological horror film that relies on two strong actors bringing well-written characters to life. This isn’t a loud, in-your-face kind of terror that you get here, but more of a slow building dread. It’s very effective and worth checking out.

REASONS TO SEE: Nice placement in the 90s. Surprisingly creepy.
REASONS TO AVOID: Could have gone for the gusto a bit more.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some sexual references and violence..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Folkins previously worked with Stevenson in the horror film Hoax.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/11/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Session 9
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
I Am Woman