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

Vampire Cleanup Department (Gao geung jing dou fu)


There’s nothing like a nice refreshing dip in an acid pool.

(2017) Horror Comedy (Media Asia) Babyjohn Choi, Min Chen Lin, Siu-Ho Chin, Richard Ng, Hok-chi Chiu, Meng Lo, Susan Yam-Yam Shaw, Cheng-Yan Yuen, Jim Chim, Eric Tsang. Directed by Sin-Hang Chiu and Pak-Wing Yan

Budding filmmakers, here is something to consider: everybody loves a secret agency that protects its citizens from supernatural threats – or at least a high enough percentage of everybody that you’re likely to get a whole lot of buzz.

Tim Cheung (Choi) is something of a clumsy nebbish. An orphan, he was brought up by his grandma who often confuses him with his deceased father. One night, he sees someone being attacked in an alleyway and tries to help; instead, he is bitten on the behind by a strange creature.

That creature turns out to have been a vampire. When Tim wakes up, he’s in the underground headquarters of the Vampire Cleanup Department, a secret government agency that takes on the nosferatu of Hong Kong. Among those who work for the VCD are his Uncle Chung (Ng), the head of the department as well as his Uncle Chau (Chin) who is the martial arts master of the group. There’s also Ginger (Yuen), a priest who is the master of the amulets that freeze the undead among other things; there’s also Tai Gau (Lo), the weapons master.

On Tim’s first mission, he gets dragged into a lake that had once been farmland and is kissed by a rotting vampire. The vampire’s rotting flesh sloughs off, revealing a beautiful young girl. Summer (Lin) was a 20-year-old girl whose Landlord had her buried alive with him when he died; the Landlord was a vampire and the living girl had become one due to her unjust death. Like most vampires, she can only hop around rather than walk or run. The others order Tim to immolate Summer in their furnace but Tim, seeing the tears flowing from the undead girl’s eyes hides her instead. The two soon fall in love. He grows to believe that she is not evil; that she is in fact a rare human vampire who might be able to learn how to become human again.

It’s a bad time to fall in love with the undead; there is an ambitious police officer who wants to take away the undead gig from the VCD and has his American scientist find a way to destroy the vampires scientifically. It is also very nearly time for the blood moon during which time the Landlord vampire can resurrect himself. What’s a nerdy vampire hunter to do?

For fans of classic Hong Kong cinema, particularly the hopping vampire genre, your ship has come in. This is an amazingly entertaining but lightweight homage to those films of yore such as Mr. Vampire – many of the cast have made appearances in one hopping vampire film or another. This is more of a romantic comedy than outright horror; while there are some gory images, they are relatively few in number and the bulk of the story is concentrated on the romance between Tim and Summer.

This is very much a guilty pleasure, with cheesy special effects and comedy that falls on the silly side but it has charm by the bucketful. One can’t help but root for Tim despite his hangdog demeanor and his somewhat klutzy cluelessness. It is well above the Abbott and Costello horror spoofs and way above the more modern Scary Movie-type abominations. After viewing it, I was thinking this is what a Hong Kong hopping vampire film might look like if produced by Kevin Feige and directed by Guy Ritchie – although you might have to twist yourself sideways to see the Ritchie reference (I was thinking of the Sherlock Holmes films).

The mythology behind the Vampire Cleanup Department itself is solid and has the kind of detail normally reserved for comic book adaptations. Think of these guys as the Avengers of hopping vampire hunters with a Shaolin twist. Who can’t love vampire hunters who are disguised not in dark suits but in rubbish collector vests? Some of the humor is downright subversive if you can get past the pratfalls. I love that the voice of Summer is essentially Siri after she swallows Tim’s smart phone.

There are a few missteps. Some of the intentional cheesiness is perhaps a mite too cheesy for Western audiences. Some of the externally filmed scenes at night are way too murky and were hard to make out and while the Siri-voiced Summer conceit is cute, the Malaysian pop star Lin actually has a very naturalistic delivery and I thought the film might have benefited from more dialogue from her.

This may end up being my favorite movie from this year’s New York Asian Film Festival, which is saying something because this was a particularly bumper crop of fascinating films for the festival which has become more and more influential in the past few years. It isn’t going to change anyone’s point of view or educate them all that much on conditions in Asia but it is going to entertain the ever-loving heck out of you and that’s a lot more than many of this year’s summer blockbusters can claim.

REASONS TO GO: Although this is a bit on the cheesy side it’s nevertheless supremely entertaining. The background mythology is solid. Choi is ideal for the handsome nerd role. It reminded me of a Guy Ritchie film in a kind of twisted way.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the humor is a bit overly silly for Western tastes. The special effects are definitely cheesy and some of the outdoor night scenes are a bit hard to see.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some horror violence (some of it comedic) as well as bits and pieces of gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cheng-Yan Yuen, who plays the priest Ginger, is the brother of legendary stunt choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fearless Vampire Killers
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Birthright: A War Story

Logan


The claws are out.

(2017) Superhero (20th Century Fox/Marvel) Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Boyd Holbrook, Dafne Keen, Stephen Merchant, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Richard E. Grant, Eriq LaSalle, Elise Neal, Quincy Fouse, Rey Gallegos, Krzysztof Soszynski, Stephen Dunleavy, Daniel Bernhardt, Ryan Sturz, Jason Genao, Hannah Westerfield, Bryant Tardy, Ashlyn Casalegno, Alison Fernandez. Directed by James Mangold

 

The end of an era can be a cause for celebration, a cause for sadness or both. Hugh Jackman announced prior to the release of the latest X-Men Universe solo film that this would be his last go-round as Wolverine, a run that has lasted 17 years and nine appearances in the part, the most for an actor playing a single character. It’s pretty hard to imagine anyone else playing the role.

It is the near-future and mutants have been decimated; they are either dead or in hiding. Logan (Jackman), once known as Wolverine, is hiding in plain sight in a border town in Mexico. He drives a limo in the evenings; by day he drinks…a lot. His mutant healing ability has begun to fail him and the adamantium in his bones has begun to poison him; he’s dying. So too is Professor X (Stewart), the powerful telepath who is beset by encroaching dementia which sometimes leads to terrible psychic blasts that literally stop time. Logan takes care of his old mentor along with Caliban (Merchant), an albino mutant tracker with a severe allergy to sunlight.

Logan is approached by Gabriela (Rodriguez), a nurse who wants Logan to drive Laura (Keen), a little girl to a place in Canada. Logan’s heroic days are behind him though and he turns her down but events conspire to bring Laura and Logan together and put them on the run, chased by the ruthless Pierce (Holbrook) who works for the even more ruthless Dr. Rice (Grant). Logan soon discovers that Laura is a lot like him…a lot. She has his healing ability – and his claws. The secret behind who Laura is will send Logan on a last quest with Professor X and lead to a bloody climax in the woods just south of the Canadian border.

It seems almost impossible but the Fox X-Men movies of late…well, two of the last three of them – the R-rated ones – have actually been as good if not better than the MCU movies. Deadpool took comic book movies to the R rating with a thumb to the nose and a wink to the audience, whereas Logan is a much more serious affair.

Jackman looks a lot older than he actually is here; it’s not the years, Logan might say, it’s the mileage. Jackman makes Logan a bitter, battered man who has lost hope. He is still loyal to Charles Xavier, but has essentially retreated from a world that hates him. Logan has always been a cynical character but here Jackman makes it less a defense mechanism than surrender.

There aren’t a lot of familiar faces in supporting roles other than Stewart who lost more than 20 pounds to give Xavier an air of fragility. Keen acquits herself well in the very physical role of Laura, impressive for a child actress – heck, any actress for that matter. Former St. Elsewhere star LaSalle makes a rare screen appearance in a very memorable role of a farmer who befriends Logan with devastating consequences.

The tone is bleak, exceptionally so. In many ways it reminded me of a Western – other reviewers have compared it with some justification with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven although the filmmakers themselves seem to be purposely inviting comparisons to the classic Western Shane, clips of which play during the course of the film. Given the mainly Southwestern setting and the overall tone, it is justified in being classified a superhero Western.

In many ways, the movie is well-timed. The mutants of the comic books have often been used as allegories for any oppressed minority and in this case, one could argue that they are stand-ins for immigrants particularly of the Muslim variety. It is also very much outside the box; generally we see heroes at the beginning of their careers when they make it to the multiplex; here we see a hero at the end of his. I won’t say this is the best superhero movie of all time, but it certainly stands out in a crowded field these days. It’s not for everybody – this is not a movie for children or the squeamish. It is serious cinematic art and demands a whole lot from the audience, not the least of which is their grey matter. Not something, sadly, that many modern film audiences seem willing to give.

REASONS TO GO: Despite the carnage, the movie actually gives the viewer a lot to think about.  It plays a little bit like a Western.
REASONS TO STAY: The violence may be too intense for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Let’s face it; the violence here is pretty extreme and there’s a lot of it. There’s also plenty of profanity as well as some brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie opened in 4,071 theaters in the United States, the most ever for an R-rated film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: X-Men: Days of Future Past
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Frantz

The Dressmaker (2015)


Here is a primer on sexual stereotypes.

Here is a primer on sexual stereotypes.

(2016) Drama (Broad Green/Amazon) Kate Winslet, Liam Hemsworth, Judy Davis, Hugo Weaving, Sarah Snook, Caroline Goodall, Kerry Fox, Rebecca Gibney, Hayley Magnus, James Mackay, Julia Blake, Shane Jacobson, Gyton Grantley, Alison Whyte, Barry Otto, Sacha Horler, Shane Bourne, Mark Leonard Winter, Olivia Sprague, Darcey Wilson, Rory Potter. Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse

 

There is an old Chinese proverb that revenge is a dish best served cold. Personally, I like my revenge hot in a spicy oyster sauce, but that’s just me. In any case, the point is that vengeance is something best left to ferment awhile.

The tiny rural Australian town of Dungatar is the kind of place where not much ever goes on. It was doubly so in 1951. That is, until Tilly Dunnage (Winslet) stepped off the bus in the dusty streets of the town. She walked over to where the town’s team was playing in a rugby match. Wearing a stylish red dress, her lips slathered in cherry red lipstick, her eyes hidden behind sunglasses and a cigarette dangling from a holder at a rakish angle, she made for a sight that the town had only glimpsed in fashion magazines.

The more so because there were whispers that she had murdered a young boy named Stewart Pettyman (Potter) and while nothing was ever proven, had led to her being exiled from the town in disgrace. Her mother Molly (Davis) went quietly mad and became something of the town codger. Most of the town has turned its back on the both of them, particularly town counselor Evan Pettyman (Bourne), Stewart’s father. However, there’s no doubt that Tilly is a talented dressmaker and when Trudy Pratt (Snook) underwent a radical transformation from Plain Jane to va-va-va-voom thanks to a makeover and a Tilly original creation, soon the ladies of the town were flocking to Tilly to get their own haute couture from the former pariah.

Also lining up to see Tilly is rugby star and neighbor Teddy McSwiney (Hemsworth) who has his eyes on Tilly but must woo Molly first in order to get her blessing. However, Tilly believes she has a cursed cloud over her head and when a new tragedy befalls her, she threatens to fall apart but her mum, realizing there’s only one thing she can do for her daughter before her own time is up, comes up with a plan to get the most delicious revenge for her daughter – and perhaps redemption for herself.

Based on a book by Betty Ham, this Aussie flick was the second highest grosser of 2015 in its native land and the eleventh all-time as of this writing. It’s received little to no fanfare here in the States and in some ways that’s not so bad; it allows you to experience the twists and the turns of the plot without expectation. Unfortunately, it’s bad in that a lot of people haven’t really heard much about this movie and it’s a shame because it’s pretty dang good.

Winslet is one of those actresses who elevates bad movies into good movies and good movies into great movies. She is a force of nature here, dominating the screen almost effortlessly. Davis, one of the most underrated actresses of her generation, holds her own and even Hemsworth, who has always been something of a pretty boy, uses his easygoing charm to his advantage. Weaving, who I’ve always enjoyed as a terrific character actor, shines here as a cross-dressing cop.

The movie lampoons our obsession with fashion as well as small town insularity, both of which have been done elsewhere but here at least are done stylishly. The problem here is that there are too many styles going on; there’s a kind of American western tone (Moorhouse herself calls the film “Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven with a sewing machine”) as well as a kind of noir mystery (particularly near the end of the film as we find out what really happened to Stewart Pettyman) as well as an Edward Scissorhands­-esque ode to non-conformity, romantic comedy in the developing relationship between Tilly and Teddy and even a little family drama as per the relationship between Tilly and Molly.

I found myself liking the vibe here. I’ve never been what you’d call exactly fashion-conscious so I found that aspect of the film amusing. I also liked the relationships between Tilly and Molly as well as between Tilly and Teddy. The denouement of the film when Tilly takes her revenge is absolutely classic and worth all the extraneous material. You may favor the noir as I did, or the rom-com, or the offbeat stuff or some other aspect but I’m reasonably sure you’ll find something about this film to like. I know I found quite a bit.

REASONS TO GO: The acting here is extremely good, particularly from Winslet and Davis. As dramas go, this one has some pretty funny moments.
REASONS TO STAY: There are way too many undercurrents here.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some brief violence and a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first film Moorhouse has directed in eight years; she has two children with autism and spends most of her time off devoted to them.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/1/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Micmacs
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Audrie & Daisy