Made in Italy


The love between father and son withstands all obstacles.

(2020) Dramedy (IFC) Liam Neeson, Micheál Richardson, Valeria Bilello, Lindsay Duncan, Yolanda Kettle, Marco Quaglia, Gian Marco Tavani, Helena Antonio, Lavinia Biagi, Gabriele Tozzi, Souad Faress, Claire Dyson, Costanza Amati, Eileen Walsh, Julian Ovenden, Chelsea Fitgerald, Deborah Vale, Flaminia Cinque. Directed by James D’Arcy

I have come to a conclusion about my film critic colleagues: they really, really hate (in general) movies that make you feel. They much prefer (again, in general) movies that make you think. There’s nothing wrong with having your thoughts provoked, mind you – but not everyone goes to the multiplex to exercise their mind, and learning isn’t always a function of thought and rationality. Sometimes, it’s a process of intuition and emotion.

London-based art gallery manager Jack Foster (Richardson) is going through a painful divorce from his wife (Kettle) whose family, unfortunately for Jack, owns the gallery. Now that the couple is Splitsville, they want to sell the building and turn a tidy profit. Jack, who has worked hard to build the gallery into something, wants to buy it. But how to come up with the cast? Well there’s the house he co-owns with his dad Robert (Neeson) in Tuscany which should be able to provide the funds Jack needs in a quick sale.

Robert was once one of those artists who were the talk of the art world, whose artwork commanded astronomical sums in auctions and sales. But after the death of his wife (Jack’s mother) in a tragic accident twenty years prior, he’s stopped painting and has opted for the life of a ladies man, hopping into bed with young women whose names he can scarcely remember, much to the disgust of his son.

The trip to Tuscany is awkward and when they arrive at the house, the decades of neglect is very much evident – a family of weasels has taken up residence and they’re not willing to give up their squatters’ rights. Drill sergeant-like realtor Kate (Duncan) has a laundry list of must-dos in order to sell the house, although the plumbing is pretty good (that matters a lot, according to Kate) and so Jack, who is much more gung-ho about selling the place than his dad, gets to fixing the place up. Robert seems to be dragging his feet, even though he wants his son to have the cash, at the same time he is having trouble letting go. Jack is having trouble letting go of his anger towards his dad, who shipped him off to school just when Jack needed support the most.

Jack finds romance with a local trattoria owner named Natalia (Bilello) who is undergoing marital troubles of her own. However even as Kate finds a couple of boorish American boobs who are willing to buy the house that they clearly could never appreciate properly, the gulf between Robert and Jack reaches a boiling point with perhaps surprising results (or perhaps not).

If the renovation of a house belonging to a beloved deceased relative in one of the loveliest places on Earth sounds like the plot to another movie, that’s because it is – remember Russell Crowe extolling the charms of Provence in A Good Year? Just as that film activated many dream vacations to France, so too this one may give you the yen to visit Florence and environs.

This couldn’t have been an easy movie for Neeson and Richardson to make. Neeson’s wife – actress Natasha Richardson – and Michael’s mother, passed away far too young in 2009. I couldn’t say if the father and son in real life mirrored the strained relations that they portray onscreen, but the pain of loss that both men surely feel hangs over the production like smog on a hot summer day. There is a scene where the two confront each other over the death of the mom/wife that is especially poignant when you realize that the two have an emotional connection to the material.

Nonetheless, both men have some truly powerful scenes together and those alone are worth the price of admission (or rental in these days of pandemic). So, too, are the lovely golden-hued shots of the Tuscan countryside that has been long a favorite of filmmakers ever since cameras were invented.

First-time writer-director D’Arcy gets few points for originality here; much of the script is predictable and while the movie hits all the right feels, there are times that it comes off as derivative and not terribly original. However, wonderful performances from the leads (and Bilello is absolutely delightful as well), some magnificent cinematography and some nice foodie moments make this a movie guaranteed to make you want to head off to Tuscany yourself – or at least indulge in a really good bowl of risotto.

REASONS TO SEE: Lovely Tuscan vistas on display. Some very good work between father and son.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very predictable and occasionally bland.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sexuality and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Neeson and Richardson are father and son in real life. This is the second time they’ve appeared in the same movie together (the first was Cold Pursuit).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 54/100, Metacritic: 45/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Good Year
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Shine Your Eyes

Hope Gap


She strolls while he snores by the seashore.

(2019) Drama (Roadside Attractions/Screen Media) Annette Bening, Bill Nighy, Josh O’Connor, Alysha Hart, Kadrolsha Ona Carole, Nicholas Burns, Rose Keegan, Ryan McKen, Nicholas Blane, Ninette Finch, Derren Litten, Sally Rogers, Steven Pacey, Joel MacCormack, Jason Lines, Finn Bennett, Anne Bryson, Tim Wildman, Susan Tune, Joe Citro, Dannielle Woodward. Directed by William Nicholson

 

Not every marriage is eternal. Some come to an end prematurely; some after a short amount of time as the couple discovers that marriage was a terrible idea for the two of them, while others occur after years of marriage.

Grace (Bening) and Edward (Nighy) are days away from their 29th anniversary. Outwardly, they seem as comfortable together as two old shoes, but there are cracks showing. Edward is distracted, almost shut down; he barely acknowledges Grace. She badgers him, trying to get some sort of reaction from him. She senses something is wrong, but can’t fathom what it is.

Edward manages to coax their adult son Jamie (O’Connor) to their seaside home in Sussex from London. However, he has an ulterior motive; he tells Jamie that he has fallen in love with another woman and is leaving Grace. At first, Jamie is dumbstruck; he can’t believe it. But eventually he is convinced that Edward means to go through with it. And so Edward does.

Grace still loves Edward and is sure that this is just a phase, and that he will soon come to his senses and come home, but it becomes apparent that Edward is gone for good. She gets alternately despondent, angry and bitter. Jamie is caught in the middle, serving as mediator and messenger, soon realizing that he is slowly developing the same malaise that overtook his father, while as he gets to see his mother as a person rather than just a parent, understands that he never really knew her at all.

Movies about divorce are not uncommon, and often prove to be fodder for some compelling films (i.e. Kramer vs. Kramer, An Unmarried Woman, last year’s Marriage Story). Some critics have complained that there isn’t a lot here that’s original, which I suppose has some merit until you realize that this is based on the divorce of writer/director Nicholson’s parents. I imagine it seemed terribly original to him.

What the rest of us are left with are a quest for insight; how would we handle this? Would we ever do something like this to our partner? Could someone who seemingly have the perfect marriage just watch it collapse around them? For this kind of movie to work it has to be relatable; it has to have a frame of reference that makes it compelling to the viewer. I don’t know that the insights raised here are going to resonate deeply with everyone.

That’s where some wonderful performances come in. In Bening and Nighy, we have two often underrated pros who are both about as good as anyone in the business. Nighy plays Edward as the very definition of “doddering,” he seems lost in his own home, a schoolteacher who is obsessed with historic events that happened over two centuries ago (Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow) and seems to be more in tune with the past than he is present.

I often forget how good Bening is until I see her latest film, and then I fall in love with her (as an actress) all over again. Despite a kind of dodgy British accent, she nonetheless nails her role here, giving Grace depth and edge. Often, she is almost intolerable to be around; she is confrontational, occasionally bitchy and uncompromising but it becomes clear that she is as lost in her own way as Edward is. Bening can convey more with a single glance than most actors can with pages of dialogue.

On top of the terrific performances there is some lovely cinematography of windswept beaches and the charming coastal village of Seaford where this was filmed. American audiences, though, may find it ponderous and slow-moving, the curse of the short-attention-span-afflicted Yank. In our defense, we watched too many music videos and video games growing up to accumulate the patience to, say, read a book, let alone watch a movie that requires some concentration as well as some commitment. But, sad for us Americans, the best films almost always require both.

REASONS TO SEE: Bening and Nighy are both masters of their craft.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow and ponderous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on and expanded upon Nicholson’s play The Retreat from Moscow which in turn is based on his parents’ own divorce.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews, Metacritic: 58/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 45 Years
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Mentor

South Mountain


The happy family in twilight.

(2019) Drama (Breaking GlassTalia Balsam, Scott Cohen, Andrus Nichols, Michael Oberholtzer, Nala Gonzalez Norvind, Macaulee Cassaday, Guthrie Mass, Midori Francis, Violet Rea, Isis Masoud. Directed by Hilary Brougher

 

The stillness of a mountain retreat can sometimes hide the sounds of hearts breaking. This impressive film of a woman evolving after a major blow to her self-worth raises a question: why isn’t Hilary Brougher not getting the kind of attention that is usually reserved for can’t-miss phenoms – because she is certainly that.

Lila (Balsam) lives in a pleasant home in the Catskills. She is an art teacher and her husband Edgar (Cohen) writes screenplays. At a barbecue attended by friends, including her bestie Gigi (Nichols) who is battling breast cancer has come over for an early summer barbecue, as Lila and Edgar’s daughters Dara (Norvind) and Sam (Cassaday) – from Sam’s previous marriage – are getting set to leave Dodge for the summer. In the midst of this, Edgar takes a business phone call in the couple’s bedroom. Lila is a bit put out by this.

You can only imagine how put out she’d be if she knew the real reason for the call; Edgar has been having an affair with Emme (Francis) who is at that moment giving birth to their son. Shortly thereafter, Edgar informs Lila that he’s started a new family and he’s moving out.

We discover this isn’t the first time that Edgar has messed around on Lila. It isn’t even the first time he’s fooled around with Emme. We are informed that the last time Lila found out about Edgar’s peccadillos, she had something of a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. Lila assures Gigi that she’s fine, and then shortly after when Edgar arrives to move out some of his stuff, Lila allows her rage to manifest in an unexpected way.

For the most part, Lila is fairly reserved but she has her moments when she boils over and her true feelings come to the fore. She ends up having an affair with Jonah (Oberholtzer) – a very handsome young man who looks like he could be a lost Skarsgård brother – which ends almost as quickly as it begins. Eventually Lila realizes that she needs to pull herself up by the bootstraps and figure out who she is, who she wants to be and how she’s going to get there. For the first time, her focus is strictly on her own needs.

Brougher benefits from some beautiful cinematography courtesy of her husband, Ethan Mass which shows off the idyllic Catskills during a languid summer season. There is also a familiarity about the family home; it belongs to Brougher’s mother and the actors playing two of the children in the movie are her own.  All of this adds up to making the movie feel especially intimate.

Balsam is not normally a lead actress, although she has had a fine career making the most of smaller roles. She does look a little awkward in the scene where her and Jonah feel the sparks fly but other than that her performance is spot-on and raises some legitimacy for the idea that she should be getting larger roles. She is certainly the glue that holds together the picture here.

If I have a beef with the movie, it’s that it occasionally feels like it’s cheating a bit, sinking into clichés regarding Lila’s sexual life. I get that women react to this kind of blow in different ways but there are a couple of moves that Lila makes that seem out of character for her but I suppose that if my wife left me after multiple infidelities I’d probably act a little bit out of character also.

The movie is coming out on VOD at the perfect time. We’re headed into the summer and the heat and the sweet summer wind are perfect backgrounds for this film. Also, given that people are being forced to look for entertainment a little bit harder right now while the quarantine is still pretty much in effect, perhaps that will lead to people discovering this gem who ordinarily would not have. That can’t be a bad thing, as far as I’m concerned.

REASONS TO SEE: The cinematography is impressive.
REASONS TO AVOID: Descends into occasional predictability.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of sexuality, some brief nudity, profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Balsam is the daughter of legendary actor Martin Balsam and actress Joyce van Patten.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Queen of Hearts
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Postcards From London

Teacher (2019)


You might not want to forget your homework in this teacher’s class.

(2019) Thriller (Cinedigm) David Dastmalchian, Kevin Pollak, Curtis Edward Jackson, Esme Perez, Matthew Garry, Helen Joo Lee, Alejandro Raya, Cedric Young, Ilysa Fradin, John Hoogenakker, Karin Anglin, Sammy A. Publes, Charin Alvarez, Sam Straley, Bryce Dannenberg, Patrick Weber, Juan Lozada, Shawna Waldron, David Parkes, Sarab Kamoo. Directed by Adam Dick

 

Bullying has been a serious problem in American high schools for many years now. Despite efforts to curb the practice, there seems to be an ongoing issue of strong kids persecuting weaker kids – although who is truly strong and who is truly weak is not always easily evident.

James Lewis (Dastmalchian) is an English teacher trying to get across the intricacies of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice to bored kids at Prairie Trail High School, in a tony suburb of Chicago. James is in the midst of a contentious divorce and is showing signs of alcoholism and rage – as the holes punched in the wall of his apartment attest. Still, he’s managing to keep it together and is on the verge of being granted tenure.

When a sociopathic rich kid named Tim Cooper (Jackson) starts bullying the nerdy Preston (Garry), a smart kid as well as the photographer for the school paper, Lewis isn’t happy about the development. Things begin to escalate though when Preston gets a girlfriend – shy, unselfconfident Daniela (Perez) – and Tim, also the star pitcher for the baseball team, gets two victims for the price of one. Mr. Lewis tries to intervene but a litigation-shy administration in the form of the school principal (Young) put the kibosh on any sort of disciplinary action. It doesn’t help that Tim’s dad (Pollak) is stupid rich and is one of those sorts who is used to getting his way by any means necessary.

\Mr. Lewis as it turns out was severely bullied when he was in school and to top it off, his father was an abusive alcoholic to make matters worse. Between the stress of everything, the flashbacks to his own tortured childhood and the disappointment that his life hasn’t gone the way he expected to lead to a reckoning that nobody could have expected – except for those who have watched a thriller or two in their time.

\Dick in his first feature-length film brings up some interesting and salient points about bullying, it’s effect on the psyche and society’s unwillingness to address it. The question is asked “when is violence justified” and the answer is obviously not an easy one nor is it treated as such here. Dick is a director who has some ideas and that’s always a good thing.

The problem here is that the story is just way too predictable. You can kind of figure out where this is all going in the first fifteen minutes. While Dick has some good ideas, he delivers them in a fairly hackneyed plot that telegraphs most of its twists. It does take a while for things to get moving at a really decent clip, so the attention-challenged might not take to this one as well.

Still, Dick gets the benefit of some really solid performances, many of them from largely unknown actors. Dastmalchian, who to date has mainly done supporting roles, shows he can handle lead roles with enough screen presence to light up China. Pollak, who started his career as a comic and impressionist, has proven himself a solid dramatic actor over the years and has never been better than he is here, both jovial and civilized as well as intimidating and brutish. The guy deserves some plum roles, casting directors.

Overall, this is a nifty film but not one that is going to rock your world particularly. I like some of the choices the filmmakers make here but other decisions seem to play it too safe. I do think that Dick has potential as a director; this isn’t a bad first film at all, but it’s not one that I believe will be an essential part of his filmography when all is said and done.

REASONS TO SEE: Dastmalchian shows some good presence and Pollak is always strong.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow-moving and predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some violence and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a short film with the same title that Dick made two years prior to the feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/4/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Class of 1984
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Leo DaVinci: Mission Mona Lisa

Where is Kyra?


The face of Michelle Pfeiffer tells the whole story.

(2017) Drama (Great Point) Michelle Pfeiffer, Keifer Sutherland, Suzanne Shepherd, Sam Robards, Marc Menchaca, Babs Olusanmokun, Mauricio Ovalie, Tony Okungbowa, Celia Au, Gabe Fazio, Bradley W. Anderson, MaameYaa Boafo, Hubert Pont Du Jour, Joel Marsh Garland, Nimo Gandhi, Jorge Chapa, Elizabeth Evans. Directed by Andrew Dosunmu

 

“There but for the grace of God go I” is a phrase we use to describe the less fortunate. It’s a particularly apt phrase; most of the time what separates us from those who are destitute is good luck or good timing. Very few of those reading this now are much more than a paycheck or two away from economic disaster.

When it comes to those of a certain age who are poverty-stricken, we have a tendency to turn away our gaze. When a child is poor, we have sympathy. When an elderly person is poor, we have myopathy. We don’t see them; we don’t react the same way. Even when they are just 60 years old or thereabouts, the attitude is more like “tough luck – you must have done something to get yourself in that predicament.” Often, that isn’t the case.

That’s how it is for Kyra (Pfeiffer). She was hit by the double whammy of divorce and a lay-off at nearly the same time. Now she lives in Brooklyn with her elderly mother Ruth (Shepherd) who has some serious health problems. Kyra runs errands for her, helps bathe and feed her and take care of Ruth’s daily necessities all the while turning in application after application for work, any kind of work. There isn’t any though, not for a woman her age (about 60). They live a meager existence on Ruth’s social security and pension.

Then even that is gone. Ruth’s health eventually fails completely and one day Kyra finds her lifeless body in the living room. There are condolences of course but Kyra doesn’t have a lot of friends and as she sits back with mounting bills she wonders what in hell she is supposed to do. She sells what she can and is able from time to time to get work handing out flyers but considering her debt it’s nowhere near enough. She does meet a guy, Doug (Sutherland) who is a driver who dreams of one day having his own cab medallion license but until then he’s driving for other people and is barely making ends meet himself.

Kyra is desperate and desperate people do things that they ordinarily wouldn’t do. She’s stuck in the position of doing whatever she as to do to survive – and takes her down a road that she never thought she’d travel.

The movie is dark in a lot of different ways; first and foremost it is a dark subject dealing with things that most of us would rather not face. As we grow older, we grow less employable and no matter how much we contributed to society and the economy in our youth, once we get to that point we are expendable, cast aside drones who have outlived our usefulness. Kyra gives the impression of being a hard work (she certainly works hard at finding work) but she is not the type of worker employers are looking for – young and willing to do more for less pay. It’s a sadly common story and one most of us choose to ignore; it’s hard to consider that sooner or later we are at that same point in our lives that Kyra is in. We will all face the same obstacles as she and that, like all unpleasant truth, is something we tend to not want to think about.

Pfeiffer has always been one of the most beautiful women in the world and she remains so; only those who have been paying attention realize what a talented actress she is – she didn’t get an Oscar nomination for nothing. Kyra is perhaps the least glamorous role she’s ever played and not uncoincidentally this is legitimately the best performance of her career. Kyra is tightly wound and so Pfeiffer uses an economy of gesture, expression and dialogue to get across her anguish, her fear, her frustration and her desperation. There aren’t a lot of histrionics except in a couple of cases. Otherwise Pfeiffer gives a spare performance relying a great deal on the silent tools that an actor utilizes. It is work worthy of Oscar attention but that is so unlikely to happen that the odds don’t bear repeating so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

The movie has the advantage of Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bradford Young but Young and Dosunmu make the odd choice of putting everything in room lighting that is dark – even the exterior shots seem to be done through a filter making everything look like late afternoon on a cloudy day. Young often frames the action through doorways and mirrors; we the audience become as Peeping Toms, observing uninvited the intimacies of Kyra’s life. The effect is unsettling and off-putting. I admire the creativity – I believe it is meant to illustrate the dreary darkness of Kyra’s life – but I question the practicality.

Also not working is the soundtrack. There is very little of it and generally what you hear is discordant and grating on the ears, like metal scraping against metal. It’s the kind of heavy metal that would make even a hardcore headbanger plug their ears. Again, one has to give props for the willingness of the filmmakers to go outside the box creatively but then one has to pay attention to the needs of the audience. Good intentions, questionable execution.

I’m giving this a mild recommendation for Pfeiffer’s extraordinary performance and the subject matter which is one Hollywood has been loath to tackle. I think if Dosunmu and company had handled this in a more straightforward manner they would have been far more effective in getting their point across. As it is they did make a movie that gives the viewer a lot to think about even if they don’t particularly want to.

REASONS TO GO: The subject matter is extremely timely. Pfeiffer delivers one of the best performances of her career.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is so underlit that it is often hard to see what is happening onscreen. The score, such as it is, is abrasive and eventually pretentious.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, adult themes and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is only the fourth time in her career that Pfeiffer has appeared as a brunette onscreen.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Pursuit of Happyness
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Beirut

Finding Your Feet


Dancing never gets old.

(2017) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Imelda Staunton, Timothy Spall, Celia Imrie, Joanna Lumley, David Hayman, Phoebe Nicholls, Josie Lawrence, John Sessions, Indra Ové, Richard Hope, Sian Thomas, Victoria Wicks, Marianne Oldham Jacqueline Ramnarine, Fran Targ, Paul Chan, Alex Blake, Frankie Oatway, Peter Challis, Patricia Winker, Karol Steele. Directed by Richard Loncraine

 

For some reason, the British seem to be very adept at putting out movies about people approaching their golden years with a certain joie de vivre. From Waking Ned Devine through The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel through this Richard Loncraine-directed entry, they have taken a fairly formulaic plot and elevated it somewhat through the casting of some of the best actors of their generation and created a style of movies that is squarely aimed at the AARP set here but should have plenty of appeal to those with older parents or grandparents.

Lady Sandra Abbott (Staunton) is executing the party celebrating the knighting of her retiring husband (Sessions) with all the discipline of a five-star general. Things are going swimmingly until she discovers hubby canoodling in the cloak room with her best friend Pamela (Lawrence). Furious and humiliated, she moves out into the home of the only person who’ll have her; her big sister Bif (Imrie) who is about as opposite of the snooty, class-conscious Sandra as it’s possible to be. Bif is a free-spirited Bohemian who hasn’t strayed far from her hippie roots.

At first the two are eternally at odds and despite the good-hearted attempts of Bif to cheer her sister up, Sandra is a lot more wounded than she’s willing to admit. Finally Bif manages to convince her to attend the dance class she attends at the local community center. There she meets Jackie (Lumley), the lone patrician in the group; working class Ted (Hayman) and more to the point, Charlie (Spall) who is a good friend and confidante of Bif and who is a bit of a handyman for her. Naturally, Sandra despises him.

Of course you can guess where the film is going to go from there and – spoiler alert – it does just that. All the elements are there; mortality, Alzheimer’s, late life romance and a big competition in which the elderly will be taking on much younger groups. At times the movie seems to make a joke out of Bif’s sexual activity – as if sex started with the young – but to Loncraine’s credit he seems to prefer giving the seniors a sense of normalcy which is of course reality – the elderly do have sex from time to time, they talk about it in bawdy terms from time to time, they do physical activities and they are generally aware of current trends. It feels like moviegoers have a tendency to prefer our retirees to be un-hip and sedentary. That’s also quite far from reality; there are lots of those who are 20 years my senior who are in far better shape than I am and who know more about rap and modern pop culture than I do.

This is a movie that makes a lot of hay from the charm of the leads. Spall often plays venal roles but given a genuinely nice guy part to play he fills the screen with a brilliant smile and authentic warmth. You end up rooting for Charlie and late in the movie when he makes a critical relationship error, you can’t help but feel for the guy. There’s a scene that takes place shortly after a visit to a loved one in a nursing home in which he sits in his car and slowly his demeanor is stripped away and his sorrow and grief come to the fore. It’s the kind of scene in other hands would feel maudlin and manipulative but instead you find yourself misty-eyed as well.

I have to admit that every time I see Staunton onscreen I think “Dolores Umbridge” and that’s a tribute to her very underrated performance in that role which many know her best at, but I suspect many Americans would be astonished to discover that she has a long and honored career in musical theater. When she gets to dance she shows the kind of grace and style that comes from being a musical theater star and if the movie makes a tactical mistake it’s that they didn’t give her more opportunities to dance. Imrie similarly is pixie-ish and eye-twinkling and is a joy in this role. Is it any wonder that they were all snatched up by the Harry Potter franchise?

Da Queen is an absolute sucker for this kind of movie and it hit all her feels in spades. She loves a good cry during the course of a movie and even more she loves to feel good leaving the theater and she got both of those check marked by this film. I’ll be really honest with you; I didn’t have very high expectations for this movie and I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, this is for sure aimed at an older crowd but don’t let that stop you from seeing a movie that will make you feel good after seeing it. Goodness knows that we could all use all the good feelings we can get.

REASONS TO GO: Spall, Staunton and Imrie all turn on the charm. The film is genuinely heartwarming without being too manipulative.
REASONS TO STAY: The story is somewhat predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is brief drug use, sexually suggestive material and occasional profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Spall and Imrie played husband and wife in The Love Punch.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/31/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Unfinished Song
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Caught

For the Love of George


Nothing says Valentine’s Day like cuddling with your honey and a movie.

(2017) Romantic Comedy (Vision) Nadia Jordan, Rex Lee, Rosanna Arquette, Tate Donovan, Kristen Johnston, Shaun Sipos, Petra Bryant, Henry Hereford, Ruth Connell, Adrienne Whitney, Marina Sirtis, Paul Provenza, Ben Gleib, Tracy Ransome, Sandro Monetti, Jo Price, Ron S. Geffner, Danny Araujo, Valley Hintzen, Andrea Batista, Ian Mill, Laura Waddell. Directed by Maria Burton

 

One of the problems with romantic comedies is that although they are theoretically aimed at couples (and let’s face it, women in particular) they very rarely are the products of predominantly female creative sorts. That’s why it’s so refreshing to see a rom-com coming from a female writer-director who went out of her way to make sure that as many roles in the film’s behind the camera crew were filled by women. That gives this movie a much more authentic point of view of a female character than we normally get to experience.

Poppy (Jordan) has been going all out to prepare for her husband Stephen’s (Hereford) birthday, making a fantastic meal, baking a lovely cake and preparing for a romantic evening with rose petals on the bed, candles and sexy lingerie. When he calls saying that a rare bird had been spotted in the area (he’s an avid birdwatcher) she’s very much disappointed that he’s chosen to go out and find the bird but it is his birthday after all and he should spend it doing what he likes. After she hangs up, he calls her back and she realizes he’s butt-dialed her. And what she hears turns her world inside out and upside down.

Fed up with being the perfect wife to a man who is cheating on her, she decides to visit her former wedding planner Justin (Lee) in Los Angeles so she heads off to Heathrow and makes the long journey to Southern California to lick her wounds and figure out what happens next. While she’s there she sees a news story on George Clooney, the world’s most eligible bachelor (this is set some years ago) and the charity work he’s doing. The more she hears, the more she realizes that George is THE perfect man and sets out to go get him for herself.

Undaunted by reality, she goes to a bar that Clooney frequents but he’s not there that day. She also tries to attend a party that he’s invited to thrown by her new friend Marcy (Whitney) from Texas but the world’s worst Uber driver torpedoes her plans to meet him. After that disappointment, she goes to a bar to drown her sorrows and runs into a handsy Hollywood producer who tries to take things way too far – a scene that I’m sure resonates with a lot of women both in Hollywood and, well, everywhere else I imagine. Concerned that she has become obsessive about George, Justin refers her to a therapist (Arquette) who listens to her tales of woe with a somewhat skeptical ear.

She starts going out with Luke (Sipos), a vendor of vitamin juices who seems too good to be true – and is. However, she’s bonded with not only Justin but Marcy and Irina (Bryant), Justin’s Russian housekeeper who while at first rubbing Poppy the wrong way eventually finds common ground with her. The strong bonds of sisterhood are very much a theme here. However all is once again thrown into turmoil with the arrival of Steven, looking to win his wife back. On top of that, news of George Clooney’s engagement has put her into a tailspin. Will she give him a second chance or will she embrace the happiness she has found in Los Angeles and continue to live the life she has chosen for herself?

This is very much a woman’s movie in that one of the central themes is empowerment; that women shouldn’t necessarily live for their husband and/or children but also live for themselves. Poppy as a character starts off very nurturing and giving but ends up standing up for herself in ways she probably didn’t know she could. I wouldn’t say that most of the straight male characters in the movie are jerks but most of the important ones are which might ruin the romantic mood for the straight guy in your life.

Then again, most of the characters here aren’t particularly well drawn out with the exception of Poppy. Justin is the gay Asian male who is sexually aggressive and a little bit catty but a loyal gay friend; Irina is the Russian immigrant with vague ties to the mob and an affinity for vodka. Luke is a dumb as a rock hunk who in typical male fashion gives little thought to Poppy’s needs except to use them as a means to get what he wants. Marcy is a Texas hottie with a thick drawl and a big personality, while Sharon (Sirtis) who is Poppy’s boss at the online publication she writes for (yes, Poppy is a writer – isn’t everyone in indie films?) is a high-strung English version of a New York Jewish lady who kvetches with an English accent.

I would have liked to have seen fewer clichés and characters – and plot points – that were a bit more realistic. Considering what Burton was trying to do here, I think it would have benefited her to rather than go for the laughs at the expense of the story to have emphasized the romance and the characters. The empowerment message would have gone a lot farther I think had she done that.

I’m not so sure this is an ideal Valentine’s Day movie – Poppy is a little too hung up on Clooney and the flaws a bit too glaring for an unqualified recommendation, but certainly there are some aspects here worth cheering for and hopefully Burton will learn from this film and go on to make some movies that really do send positive messages that young women in particular need to hear at this point in time.

REASONS TO GO: This is very much of a feminine perspective with a side of empowerment.
REASONS TO STAY: There are a few too many stereotypical characters and plot devices.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Burton was inspired to write the movie after reading Don Cheadle’s book Not on Our Watch which details Clooney’s involvement with raising awareness of the genocide in Darfur and she realized that the world’s most eligible bachelor (at the time) was also an unusually sensitive and compassionate man. Two weeks later his engagement was announced and she had her idea for her film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/14/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Love Field
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Millionaires’ Unit

Downsizing


Kristen Wiig and Matt Damon have no idea how small-minded people can be.

(2017) Science Fiction (Paramount) Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Rolf Lassgård, Ingjerd Egeberg, Udo Kier, Søren Pilmark, Jayne Houdyshell, Jason Sudeikis, Maribeth Monroe, Phil Reeves, James Van Der Beek, Alison J. Palmer, Tim Driscoll, Kristen Thomson, Kevin Patrick Kunkel, Patrick Gallagher, Linda H. Anderson. Directed by Alexander Payne

 

This is an example of a movie that doesn’t know what it wants to be. Alexander Payne is one of the finest filmmakers on the planet but I suppose even the best have off-projects. This is his.

In Downsizing, scientists looking at Earth’s environmental challenges of climate change and limited resources come up with a solution – smaller people. Norwegian scientists Dr. Asbjørnsen (Lassgård) and Dr. Jacobsen (Pilmark) make a startling breakthrough – a machine that can shrink people to about five inches tall. A colony is founded in Norway by Dr. Asbjørnsen and his wife (Egeberg) and leads to colonies for the downsized as the folks who have been shrunk are called.

There are some incentives to do that. Because their need for resources is less, their wealth is stretched much further. Someone who has $30,000 in savings can be a millionaire. Financially strapped couple Paul (Damon) and Audrey (Wiig) Safranek decide to take the plunge but at the last moment Audrey changes her mind, leaving Paul five inches tall and about to be divorced. Audrey gets half of everything in the settlement which means that Paul can’t live in the palatial mansion he’d purchased but has to move to an upscale condo while working as a phone salesman for Land’s End.

One of his neighbors is Dusan Mirkovic (Waltz) who is everything that Paul isn’t; outgoing, a bon vivant, adventurous and a risk taker. Dusan makes income on the black market, supplying luxury items like cigars and champagne for the various Downsized developments. Through Dusan Paul meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Chau), a Vietnamese activist whose political activities got her forcibly shrunk and a leg removed. She is walking around on a poorly constructed prosthetic that causes her to limp and is likely to cause some damage to her hips in years to come. Paul at first offers to help her get fitted for a better prosthetic but quickly finds the woman abrasive and pushy. He also finds that she has a generous soul that is all about helping those around her. Paul realizes that he has found a calling for himself, something he’d always missed as a normal-sized guy – but events in the larger world are putting all of his plans for his future into turmoil.

The first part of the movie seems to be a comedy and that’s how the movie was marketed but it really isn’t that. The movie seems to be an environmental call to arms but it isn’t that either. This simply put smacks of studio interference but the trouble is I’m not sure which part of the movie Payne is responsible for. The two sides certainly don’t integrate well.

That’s a shame because there are things to admire in both sides of the film. There are some very salient thoughts that this film forces the viewer to think about; there are also some genuinely funny moments. There was a chance to give the viewer a sense of wonder, seeing the world from a different perspective but Payne didn’t seize the opportunity and so basically the perspective is just the same as it would be from a normal perspective.

There are also terrible lapses in logic; the world of the very small isn’t well thought-out. The Norwegian colony should have had issues with insects and other pests; nope. We see butterflies from time to time but what about bees, wasps, mosquitoes, house flies? Not to mention beetles, bugs and spiders. It rains a lot of the time in Leisure World. Wouldn’t the rain drops seem bigger to people who are smaller? They look like regular rain though.

I also had trouble with the Ngoc Tran character. You can accuse me of cultural insensitivity if you like, but she is so pushy, so aggressive and so demanding that I can’t for the life of me figure out why someone as white bread as Paul would fall in love with her. It doesn’t make sense and the relationship is central to the movie.

I really wanted to like this movie and it had everything going for it; a terrific cast, a great concept and one of the best directors in the world. It just doesn’t work at all for me and has to be one of the biggest disappointments of 2017.

REASONS TO GO: The movie does have some thought-provoking moments. At least Payne doesn’t do what you expect him to in terms of where the plot goes.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie loses cohesion in the second half and nearly falls apart. There are too many lapses in logic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some sexual references, graphic nudity and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The production crew used an actual Omaha Steaks plant for filming and employees were used as extras in the scenes filmed there.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews: Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Secret World of Arrietty
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Permission

In the Shadow of Iris (Iris)


There are layers of deceit when it comes to sexual fetishes.

(2017) Thriller (Netflix) Romain Duris, Charlotte Le Bon, Jalil Lespert, Camille Cotin, Adel Bencherif, Sophie Verbeck, Héléne Barbry, Jalis Laleg, Violetta Sanchez, Gina Haller, Félix Cohen, Waël Sersoub, Benoit Rabillé, Antoine Bujolli, Mourad Frarema, Vincent Dos Reis, Olivier Galzi, Christian Ameri, Nicolas Grandhomme, Betony Vernon, Alexandra Langlais. Directed by Jalil Lespert

 

Who knows what is in a woman’s mind (or a man’s for that matter but that’s for a different review) behind the façade of civility? All sorts of things percolate; the woman who may seem to be a model wife may have cheating on her mind. The woman who seems proper and prim may indulge in fetishes and perversions that would shock you if you knew.

Iris (Le Bon) is the wife of wealthy Parisian banker Antoine Doirot (Lespert). They are at lunch one afternoon when she excuses herself for a smoke. When she doesn’t return, at first Antoine wonders if she didn’t decide to go shopping without saying goodbye but as the day wears on and there’s no sign of her he begins to worry…but then the call comes in on his smart phone complete with a photo of his wife tied up and gagged in some dark room. The ransom is high but affordable for someone like Antoine.

She is in the possession of auto mechanic Max Lopez (Duris) who not only is in financial trouble and dealing with a divorce, but is about to lose his home due to Antoine’s bank. Yet he is not a suspect right away; though he has a criminal record, nobody thinks he has the skills to pull something like this off. As the police detectives Vasseur (Cotin) and Ziani (Bencherif) look into the matter more deeply, it quickly becomes clear that all is not as it seems – and that nobody is as they seem in this twisted drama.

This French thriller has noir-ish elements as well as being heavy on the erotic. Playing heavily into the plot are bondage and S&M fetishes – one scene includes a dominatrix whipping the hell out of a main character’s back, almost into unconsciousness. There is sex on top of a murder victim by the murderer, and there are all sorts of references to marital infidelity, sexual violence and prostitution. This is most definitely not for family viewing, unless your family hangs out in leather clubs.

I’m not a prude but the eroticism feels a bit gratuitous to me. It doesn’t really make too much of a difference in the plot really but that’s neither here nor there. If you’re into S&M it’s fairly tame stuff compared to what you might find on some of the adult movie sites but more realistic than what you’ll find in the Fifty Shades movies.

The real problem here is that Lespert inserts flashbacks throughout the film to explain some of the things going on, but there’s no real way of telling you’re watching something from a different time until often later in the movie. It’s confusing as hell and the plot, convoluted already, doesn’t need that kind of confusion. Lespert is decent enough with the tension, keeping viewers into the movie but sometimes it’s truly hard to figure out what’s going on. It doesn’t help matters that Lespert and Duris look fairly similar and the only way to tell them apart is when Max is wearing his mechanic coveralls – which he doesn’t always do.

On the plus side the soundtrack is awesome with a lot of great pop and rock songs from France, England and the U.S. I’d go so far as to say that it may have the best soundtrack of any of the Netflix original films I’ve seen thus far. Still, if you’re looking for an erotic thriller, there is a lot going for this one. There’s also a lot going against it, to be fair. I think what it boils down to is whether you can tolerate the film’s flaws, are able to tolerate (or if you have a thing for) bondage and S&M, and if you don’t mind subtitles. If the answer to all of those are positive, definitely have at this one.

REASONS TO GO: Lespert does a fine job of maintaining tension. The soundtrack is excellent.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the plot points are far-fetched. The flashbacks are often confusing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is nudity, sexual situations, brief language and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is a loose remake of the 2000 Hideo Nakata film Chaos. Initially this was going to be an American film but when no studio would finance it, the movie was shopped to other countries with a French production company footing the bill.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Disappearance of Alice Creed
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
American Folk

Wonder


Julia Roberts with her new leading man.

(2017) Dramedy (Lionsgate) Jacob Tremblay, Owen Wilson, Julia Roberts, Izabela Vidovic, Mandy Patinkin, Noah Jupe, Bryce Gheisar, Elle McKinnon, Daveed Diggs, Ty Consiglio, Kyle Breitkopf, James Hughes, J. Douglas Stewart, Millie Davis, Ali Liebert, Joseph Gordon, Cameron Roberts, Nadji Jeter, Danielle Rose Russell, Erika McKitrick, Sonia Braga, Nicole Oliver. Directed by Stephen Chbosky

 

Going to a new school can be traumatic even in the best of circumstances. Throw in that you know – without any doubt whatsoever – that you are for certain going to be bullied. How much more traumatic does that make things?

Auggie (Tremblay) is in that exact situation. He’s not being bullied because of sexual preference, religion or race; Auggie has a disfiguring disease known as Treacher Collins syndrome. The effects of 27 surgeries besides making it necessary for Auggie to be homeschooled have allowed him to breathe and essentially survive but nothing really can change the deformities of his face. They are so pronounced that he’d rather wear an astronaut’s helmet to school which would merely mark him as weird than go barefaced which marks him as a freak.

His loving parents – Nate (Wilson), the cool dad we all wanted and Isabel (Roberts), the über-protective Mama Bear – are worried for him. His big sister, teenaged Via (Vidovic) is protective of him but has troubles of her own; her best friend Miranda (Russell) has suddenly shut her out and is off with a much different clique of friends. Forlorn, she signs up for drama class and meets a cute guy Justin (Jeter) who she crushes on and eventually the two begin dating.

Auggie, with his upbeat attitude and intelligence begins to make friends despite the hardships. Jack Will (Jupe) becomes his best friend although Julian (Gheisar) continues to torment him. Still all the people in Auggie’s orbit are trying to make it the best they can but it isn’t easy.

This is based on a bestselling children’s book by RJ Palacio who was inspired to write it when her son whom she had taken out for ice cream was brought to tears by the sight of a kid with Treacher Collins syndrome. The book is very heartwarming and teaches the value of accepting people as they are and the movie follows it pretty closely from a stylistic perspective.

The acting is solid – one might say wonderful – with Tremblay getting particular kudos. Child actors tend to be stiff and hammy but Tremblay plays it with a degree of naturalism that is refreshing. Yeah from time to time he says and does thing that come from the perfect kid school of filmmaking but that’s not on Tremblay, the actor. Considering he has to emote under layers of make-up, something some adults have trouble with, one has to really give the kid kudos. Most of the other performances are strong as well, although I would have wished for more Roberts. It seems a shame to hire her on for a role like this one and not have her in the picture more.

My issue is that a lot of the book – and the movie – is a bit too nice, suffering from too-good-to-be-truism. They all have their weak moments but it’s like the entire movie is populated from characters in a children’s show and it doesn’t feel real or authentic. I needed a little more of both to make this work for me.

Movies that are this emotionally manipulative tend to irritate critics but for some reason critics embraced this one. It got strong scores on Rotten Tomatoes (see below) and while it’s pretty much out of the awards consideration picture, it nonetheless got favorable reviews from both critics and consumers alike. I wish I could join them but this felt a little bit too bland and predictable for me to do so.

REASONS TO GO: Tremblay gives a nice, nuanced performance.
REASONS TO STAY: This is a bit too vanilla and predictable for my tastes.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes of bullying and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The medical name for Auggie’s affliction is mandibulofacial dystosis.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/22/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mask
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Strawberry Flavored Plastic