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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

The Cuban


The memories of when we were young.

(2019) Drama (Brainstorm) Louis Gossett Jr., Ana Golja, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Lauren Holly, Giacomo Gianniotti, Shiva Negar, Jonathan Keltz, Layla Alizada, Kane Mahon, Tabby Johnson, Margaret Lamarre, Gerry Mendicino, Richard Chevolleau, Emily Piggford, Mazida Soroor, Paulbaum Wildbaum, Wajma Soroor, Nadine Roden, Pazz Neglia, Olga Consorti. Directed by Sergio Navarretta

 

Our culture is remarkably cruel to the elderly. We have a tendency to shut them away in warehouses for the old, out of sight and out of mind. We sigh and tell ourselves that it is in the best interests of those whose golden years are tinged with rusted iron; in reality it is as often a convenience for ourselves.

Young Mina Ayoub (Golja) is a pre-med student starting her first day on the job in an extended care facility. One of her assignments, as passed on to her by head Nurse Baker (Holly) is to care for Luis Garcia (Gossett), a cantankerous gentleman who is in the throes of vascular dementia and in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. He refuses to eat the dietitian-prescribed food that is supposed to be good for his ailing heart. She notices a poster of Benny Moré on the wall, a legendary Cuban trumpeter. Her late father had introduced her to Cuban music so she has a bit more familiarity with it than the average Afghan immigrant.

She also lives with her Aunt Bana (Aghdashloo), who as an administrator for the facility, is watching Mina like a hawk. Bana had a career as a physician in Kabul before the violence there forced her to move to Canada but it meant giving up her career and taking care of her niece, who by then had been orphaned

Mina is oddly drawn to Luis and decides to play some Cuban jazz records to see if they would stimulate something more than the vacant stare he gives (when he’s not throwing plates in her general direction when she tries to get him to eat). She also discovers that Luis is willing to eat Cuban food that he remembers fondly, so she begins cooking some for him and bringing it in.

Gradually we discover that Luis was one of the most revered guitar players in Cuba, whose band Los Cubanos played all over the world and shared the stage with luminaries like Dizzy Gillespie. He also was deeply in love with Elena (Golja in a dual role), the band’s singer. The food and the music begin to awaken Luis and he and Mina begin to bond. She also begins a romance with Kris (Gianniotti), a teacher’s assistant at her college who is studying psychology and has some insight into Luis’ condition, as well as a guitar. Soon, it appears Luis is coming out of his shell, but that generally means that the other shoe is about to drop.

Navarretta, whose career spans 20 years although he has mostly directed short films, is a bit heavy-handed in places; for example, the flashback scenes of Luis in Havana are vibrant and colorful; the scenes in the nursing home drab and colorless. We get that Luis’ life is more vivid in his memory than in his intolerable present, but I don’t think it was necessary to make the home look like Alcatraz.

The performances here are strong with the 84-year-old Gossett showing that he won an Oscar for a reason; he imbues Luis with humanity and dignity, despite the fact that his dementia is robbing him of both. Luis is often volatile, his moods swinging wildly from violence to joy to child-like to weary, sometimes within the confines of a single conversation. Although his Cuban accent slips from time to time, his chemistry with Golja is undeniable and she brings a great deal of life to the film; she’s another veteran of the DeGrassi series that seems to have employed nearly every actor in Canada at one time or another.

Although the movie is low-key, it does show a genuine affection for Cuban music and culture, not to mention a valid point to make about how the elderly are treated in modern Western society. I could have done without the subplot of the romance between Mina and Kris; it distracts from the real story which is the relationships between Mina and Luis, and between Mina and her family, which is also an important commentary on the expectations of immigrant families which I could relate to directly. This is a movie that some might write off as a Hallmark channel type of film, but I can assure you that it is much, much more – it is a hidden gem that film buffs would do well to seek out.

REASONS TO SEE: A love letter to Cuban music as well as an indictment of how we warehouse the elderly.
REASONS TO AVOID: The romance between Mina and Kris feels unnecessary
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief mild violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The soundtrack was written by Hilario Duran, a veteran Cuban pianist whose own life story has many similarities to that of Luis Garcia.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews, Metacritic: 53/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Buena Vista Social Club: Adios
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Rebuilding Paradise

Relic


All is not well in this house.

(2020) Horror (IFC Midnight Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote, Jeremy Stanford, Chris Bunton, Christina O’Neill, Catherine Glavicic, Steve Rodgers, John Browning, Robin Northover. Directed by Natalie Erika James

 

The most frequent description I’ve seen of this impressive first feature by Japanese-Australian director Natalie Erika James is “slow burn” and that’s extremely apt. This is a movie that takes it’s time and builds organically to a terrifying conclusion that will leave you breathless.

When octogenarian Edna (Nevin) is reported missing, her concerned daughter Kay (Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Heathcote) hurry to her decaying old home on the outskirts of Melbourne. There is clearly tension between mother and daughter, but there is also a great sigh of relief when Edna turns up with no memory of where she’s been, nor how she got those ominous black bruises on her chest.

But Edna isn’t at all well; she doesn’t recognize her house or even her family at times, and her mood swings are growing progressively more violent. Kay is trying to organize the house and look into a care home for Edna, while Sam is wondering why Edna doesn’t move in with Kay, or Sam with Edna. The deterioration of Edna’s mind is mirrored by the deterioration in Edna’s house; mold and mildew throughout the once-great home, things behind the wall that unexpectedly go thump and a stained glass window that was once part of a cottage that stood on the property but has long since been demolished but is a connection to a family secret that is rearing its ugly head.

Creaky old houses are naturally perfect locations for horror films and in particular for this one. There are plenty of noises in this house, from loud bangs to whispered conversations Edna has with people only she can see. James, who co-wrote the screenplay and based the movie on her experiences with her own grandmother who was afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, has a sure, patient hand, allowing the mood to grow until by the end of the movie the tension is nearly unbearable. She has a deft touch for horror, which sometimes gets treated with in a heavy-handed manner; good horror movies don’t necessarily have to be screams when whispers can be far more terrifying.

James was fortunate enough to get three strong actresses for the lead. Mortimer is one of the world’s most capable actresses – I can’t recall a single subpar performance on her part – and Heathcote has become one of the best young actresses in the business today. Nevin will be less known to American audiences. A veteran of Australian stage and television, she is absolutely mesmerizing here, giving a performance that is strangely sympathetic even as her mind slpis away. It’s heartbreaking to watch, yes, but also terrifying as there are hints of a supernatural presence involved.

The scares are mostly accomplished with practical effects, with sound being predominant – this is a movie that takes “things that go bump in the night” quite literally. In fact, be aware while watching it that the pounding that you hear throughout the movie may be headache-inducing for you – it was for me, although considering how effective the thumps were, I didn’t mind quite so much as I might have. While the one misstep in the film is an overabundance of jump scares which are a cheap way of getting a gasp from your audience. For the most part, though, James relies on atmosphere and superb performances from her leads to get this film on the radar for one of the top horror films (so far) of 2020. I’ll be watching with interest to see what Ms. James does next.

REASONS TO SEE: The use of sound effects is second to none. Creepy and disturbing. Nevin gives an astonishing performance as the demonic grandma.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit repetitive in its use of jump scares.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, brief nudity, and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its debut at Sundance earlier this year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews, Metacritic: 77/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Others
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Olympia

What They Had


The bonds between mother and daughter trasncend the years.

(2018) Drama (Bleecker Street) Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Robert Forster, Blythe Danner, Taissa Farmiga, Josh Lucas, Sarah Sutherland, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Aimee Garcia, William Smillie, Isabeau Dornevil, Jennifer Robideau, Jay Montepare, An Whitney, Eric Ian, Matthias Kocur, Ruben Ramirez, Annie McKinnie, Darren Sheehan, Ryan W. Garcia, Ann Kabis. Directed by Elizabeth Chomko

 

Growing old sucks. If you don’t believe me, just check out every Hollywood movie ever made about dementia. Better still, talk to someone who has parents or grandparents actually going through it. It’s not as cute as it looks in the movies.

Ruth (Danner) gets out of bed early one morning, leaves her Chicago apartment in the midst of a snowstorm wearing only her nightgown and an overcoat and boards a train When her husband Burt (Forster) discovers she’s not there and can’t find her anywhere, he calls his son Nicky (Shannon) frantically. Nicky in turn calls his sister Bridget (Swank) a.k.a. “Bitty” against the express wishes of his father. Bridget arrives from California with her newly expelled from college daughter Emma (Farmiga) in tow, only to find that her mother has been found.

Nicky is all for putting Ruth in a memory-assistance home which Bridget tacitly agrees with, but Burt is having none of it and Bridget won’t stand up to her dad, who bullied her into marrying a husband (Lucas) that she didn’t love. Nicky, who owns a bar, stands up to his dad but with little effect; the power of attorney over his mom was granted to Bridget, which still rankles Nicky.

As Ruth’s stage six dementia progresses, the kids squabble and Burt pontificates. Bridget initiates an affair with a local contractor (Smillie). Soon it becomes obvious that Ruth is getting worse. Can the siblings convince their dad to see reason before something truly awful happens?

This kind of movie has been done in both movies and on television many, many times before. In terms of content, ain’t nothing to see here that won’t be familiar to those who watch movies that aren’t about spaceships and superheroes occasionally. The tropes that first time writer-director Elizabeth Chomko utilizes are going to be familiar to anyone who’s see any movie involving Alzheimer’s. She also doesn’t give her characters a whole lot of depth.

Given that, the reason to see the movie is the cast and it is a good one. Me, I lurve me some Robert Forster and will essentially see any movie that he’s in for no other reason other than because he is in it. Swank and Shannon are two of the best actors in Hollywood today and with Swank seen much less often onscreen these days, it is a treat to see her work just as it is a treat to see Shannon do his thing. Danner is given a pretty thankless role but she pulls it off with some dignity, despite there being essentially a caricature of dementia patients involved. We don’t see the messy side of it; the screaming, the tears, the recriminations. In that sense the movie is a bit bloodless.

Still, great acting can cover a lot of sins and that’s what happens here. Not an essential movie but certainly one to watch if you need something to watch and you’re tired of shut-off-your-brain Hollywood fare.

REASONS TO SEE: Superior cast.
REASONS TO AVOID: This is nothing you haven’t seen before.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and a brief sexual reference.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chomko’s grandparents – upon whom the couple of Bert and Ruth are based – appear in a photograph in their home.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Kanopy, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Savages
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Underneath the Same Moon

The Leisure Seeker


On the road, American-style.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements


Better to soar among the eagles than walk with the turkeys.

(2019) Documentary (Abramorama/HBOJonas, Paul, Sally, Colleen, Matthew, Irene. Directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky

 

As someone who loves movies and music, my senses of sight and hearing are particularly precious to me. As such, I tend to feel a tremendous pity for those who lack one or both of those senses. How can someone without those senses appreciate the grandeur of Laurence of Arabia attacking Aqaba or the soaring Maurice Jarrė score that accompanies it? It seems to me to be an irreplaceable loss – but there are other compensations that perhaps I failed to take into account.

Brodsky is the child of two deaf parents, Paul and Sally, who received cochlear implants while in their sixties. She and her siblings are all hearing, so they were in some ways insiders to the challenges their parents faced without perhaps understanding them fully, as those possessed of a sense can never truly understand what it is to be without it. How does one, after all, describe a world of silence to someone whose world is filled with noise?

She is also the mother of a deaf son, Jonas, who was born hearing but gradually lost his ability to hear when he was four. He was then given cochlear implants and when the documentary was filmed, was 11 years old who most of us would never realize he had any sort of hearing issue.

Music is also important to Jonas and he is taking piano lessons. He tells his piano teacher Colleen that he wants to learn Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata which his teacher tells him he doesn’t hav the skills for et. Jonas is insistent and at last Colleen relents. After all, Beethoven wrote the piece during a time when his hearing was failing him. Was that a motivating factor in Jonas’ desire to play it, or did he merely like the piece? We never find out for sure; at least, not from Jonas.

This is a very personal film for Brodsky and in many ways that makes it more difficult to review. Not because I believe she’s going to ever read this review, although I like to think she might someday, but it feels too much like I’m reviewing her family life. She is clearly devoted to er children and her parents, and although we see little interaction between the director and her husband Matthew, we see him comforting and encouraging his son and realize that he is a good man. The relationship between Jonas and his grandparents is a special one and the elder couple obviously adore their grandson even when they chide him over being sloppy when using American Sign Language.

As the film progresses, we see that Paul – one of the inventors of TTY technology which allows deaf people to use the telephone – is beginning to show signs of oncoming dementia. He is forgetful and sometimes loses focus on what he’s doing. When Brodsky lovingly but firmly tells him that she can’t allow him to drive her children any longer, it is a truly emotional moment; Paul not understanding why she’s come to this decision, Sally tearfully asking him to stop arguing. Many viewers who have undergone similar discussions with their own parents or grandparents will feel compassion.

In the background looms the ghost of Beethoven, his music providing a soundtrack. Quotes from his letters pop up throughout the film and animations depict him (but curiously always as an outline, never as a fully realized figure) linking him with a solitary bird flying within sight but definitely separate from the flock.

Jonas is, at the end of the day, a fairly typical 11-year-old boy. There are things about him that are admirable, there are other things in which he is less so. He sometimes tries to con Colleen into thinking that he’s doing better with the piece than he actually is but she’s having none of it; she holds him accountable but never in a cruel or vicious way. She simply calls him on his bull when he is espousing some. I don’t know that I would have liked my life immortalized when I was eleven; I would like to hope that I would handle it as well as Jonas does here.

Brodsky has two other children who show up incidentally and always with Jonas; the clear focus is on her eldest son. I wonder what her kids thought about that or how they handled not being the center of mommy’s attention. Still, it takes a certain kind of courage to turn your cameras on your kids when you know that the footage isn’t going to be shown just to family and a few long-suffering friends but to the entire world, or at least that part of it that subscribes to HBO (this film will be available on the premium content channel later this fall).

Like any life, there are ups and downs in the film. We get to see Jonas playing the Sonata at a recital and we get to see the difficulties that the grandparents face as old age robs Paul of memory and cognitive thought. He is just in the beginning stages here but the ordeal to come is one that many children are sadly familiar with and it’s hard not to feel compassion for Paul, Sally and their family. The road ahead won’t be easy for them.

I found that Brodsky dividing her film into movements to be kind of gimmicky and arbitrary; the first movement seems to be about beginnings, the second about the journey and the final about destinations but that’s over-simplifying. I thought the movie would have been better without it. Using Beethoven as a linking device doesn’t always work either.

But let it not be said that there are not moments here of exquisite grace; Jonas takes off the external device of his cochlear implant to practice, rendering him deaf but also removing the distractions of sound. Jonas speaks of how when the implant is off, he can just play for the sheer joy of it. When the implant is in and working, he can hear his every mistake and every one gnaws at him. He has not yet gotten to the point where he understands that imperfections are okay, that mistakes aren’t the end of the world. We all would like to be flawless but none of us achieves it truly (other than my dog Penelope but that’s another story entirely). Our mistakes make us human and our humanity makes us beautiful. It’s the aspiration to be flawless that is wonderful, not the achievement of it.

REASONS TO SEE: This is probably as close as the hearing are ever going to get to understanding what it’s like to be deaf.
REASONS TO AVOID: The division of the film into movements seems arbitrary and gimmicky.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Brodsky’s previous documentary on her deaf parents, Hear and Now, was nominated for an Oscar.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/23/19: Rotten Tomatoes:82% positive reviews: Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sound and Fury
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society